Read The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling Online

Authors: Jayden Woods

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The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling

BOOK: The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling
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The Third Lost Tale of
Mercia:

Aydith the
Aetheling

Jayden Woods

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2010 Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce


This year there was great
commotion in England in consequence of an invasion by the Danes,
who spread terror and devastation wheresoever they went, plundering
and burning and desolating the country with such rapidity, that
they advanced in one march as far as the town of Alton
...”

--Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 1001
A.D.

*

LUNDENBURG

1001 A.D.

Aydith’s heart seemed to throb in her
throat, so completely did her rage and sorrow fill her. Breathing
became difficult as she waited for her father to exit the hall, but
she stood firm, swallowing down what fear she could. She watched as
the various nobles and clergymen exited the room first, their faces
cheerful, though she did not see anything to be cheerful about.
Some of the faces comforted her, such as Bishop Alphege’s, who wore
his usual expression of stoic calm. Others infuriated her, such as
the smirk of the man named Lord Alfric, who had betrayed her father
once before but now strolled about the palace as if he still ruled
Mercia as ealdorman.

Even more troubling, she realized, was the
number of faces missing. Recently the Danes had pillaged all the
way to Alton and met with a Saxon army, but so many great men died
that day, no one could consider the battle a victory. Among the
dead was the kind and scholarly Athelward, as well as Lord Leofric
of Whitchurch, and Wulfhere the thegn, and high-steward Lord
Leofwin, and Bishop Elfy’s son Godwin ... and many more which she
could not name. Her arms trembled as she clenched her fists at her
sides. Despite the deaths of those brave men, Sweyn Forkbeard
pillaged on with his army of Vikings. From Alton the pagans had
marched on to Devonshire, where another one of her father’s lords
betrayed the Anglo-Saxons. His name was Pallig, and he had been a
Dane living amongst the English; perhaps King Ethelred should have
seen it coming.

Her fury only raged hotter the longer she
waited, as did her determination to speak her mind. And though the
men passed by her and she knew almost all of them by name, as they
knew hers, they did not bother to look at her or address her, for
she was only an eleven-year-old female aetheling standing in the
middle of the palace. Even the fact she was an aetheling hardly
seemed to matter; after all, Ethelred had ten children in all.

At last, the king himself exited the hall.
Her stomach turned a somersault. King Ethelred looked rather
pleased with himself: his cheeks were rosy above his fair beard,
his blue eyes were crisp and bright, and his crown looked freshly
polished. Normally, Aydith would be proud of him, for of course a
king should always appear confident, no matter the circumstances.
What enraged her was the real reason why he felt victorious, which
had nothing to do with the Vikings.

When he saw her, his smile fell. “Aydith?”
He scratched at his beard and glanced nervously about, as if hoping
to see one of her retainers come fetch her away. “Something
wrong?”


I ... I heard you,” she
gasped. “I heard everything. How
could
you?”

King Ethelred’s cheeks turned deep red. She
was not sure if the cause was embarrassment or fury—or perhaps
both. “You should not have heard anything,” he snapped. Of course,
he did not even address her question. He probably never would. “So
forget you heard it at all!”

Despite herself, Aydith felt tears filling
her eyes, blurring her vision. She knew it was bad for an aetheling
to be seen crying, especially with so many important men watching,
but she couldn’t help herself. “Mother has not even been dead a
year.”

He straightened himself, which was no small
feat under the heaviness of his thickly woven garments. “A king
must have a queen.”


But Emma of Normandy!
She’s one of them!” Aydith was getting carried away with herself,
practically screaming. “Norman filth! The Normans are friends to
the Danes! Have you forgotten, Father?!”


Of course not, you foolish
child! These are matters you cannot understand.” Ethelred’s eyes
darted desperately around the room, seizing the first available
hearth companion he could find. “You, Hastings! Take her to her
room, and don’t let her leave your sight, for God’s
sake!”

For the first time, Aydith understood the
extent of her own embarrassment. She looked around her, glimpsing
the smug faces leering and laughing at her, and she realized how
she must look to them. She was small and thin, any sturdiness of
her frame covered by the loose folds of her dress. She was eleven
years old, presuming to yell at her father, the king; and even
worse than that, she was a girl. To them she was nothing more than
a spoiled, childish girl.

Her humiliation filled her up and petrified
her. The sobs still wanted to come out, but she restricted them,
her body shaking violently as a result. All the while, a man walked
forward to take her away. She recognized him vaguely as he came
closer, but it was hard to see anything clearly through the deluge
of her sorrow. His hands on her shoulders were large but gentle,
gripping her and guiding her away from the crowd. His touch was
surprisingly relaxing.


There, there,” he said,
though a bit awkwardly, and patted her back.

She bowed her head and sagged under his
fingers. What had she accomplished by making such a scene? Nothing.
What had she lost? A great deal. Her father would be more strict
from now on. The nobles would likely laugh at anything she said,
aetheling or not.

Despite the gravity of these defeats, the
words of the witenagemot resumed echoing in her head, again and
again and again. Her anger trickled back into her veins, granting
her new strength. She remembered the way the wise men had spoken to
her father, especially that treacherous man Alfric, and how from
the start of the gathering to the finish they had all managed to
turn the truth on its head. At the beginning of the meeting, King
Ethelred had still been filled with resolve to launch yet another
attack on the Vikings, despite his many failures. By the end,
everyone had convinced him that he should try a more friendly
approach instead.

When at last they reached her room, she
broke away from Hastings, storming in of her own will. She grabbed
the door and made to slam it, but he put his hand against it. Her
fierce brown gaze met his, blazing.

As she stared at him, however, she found she
could not remain angry for long. He seemed a strong and noble man,
his face kind and devoid of the selfishness and deceitfulness of
almost everyone she met in the king’s court. In truth, she had
known Hastings for some time now, who had served the royal family
as a retainer ever since becoming a man at the age of twelve, she
suspected. Though she had always seen him about, she had never
thought of him much, beyond pondering his somewhat large chin on an
otherwise box-shaped face. His eyes were so soft and unassuming,
his demeanor so quiet and graceful, that his presence was easy to
take for granted. He had shiny brown hair that barely fell below
his ears, and a close-cut beard that helped cover the largeness of
his chin. This close, she thought the beard looked very soft to the
touch.


My lady,” he said, looking
somewhat abashed, then cleared his throat. “I’m to watch over
you.”

She lifted her chin high, but removed her
hand from the door, and went inside.

Two of her ladies already loitered within
her chamber, having abandoned their weaving work to whisper to each
other and giggle next to the brazier. At the sight of Aydith
entering with a red, swollen face and a soldierly companion, they
hushed immediately and straightened their postures.

Aydith glared at them. She already disliked
the maids, but now she disliked them even more, for they had been
talking about her older brother Aethelstan and blushing like tavern
wenches. Aydith did not not know exactly what they were whispering
to each other, but she knew it must be sinful, and even if it was
not, it was disrespectful to speak of an aetheling in such a
manner. Not sure what to say, she harrumphed and crossed her arms
over her chest, then went to sit at her table and chair.

This table was probably her favorite place
on earth to sit. It squatted in a cold corner of the stone room,
from which point the rest of the world seemed to grow quiet around
her. At the table, she did not have to focus on anything but her
wooden toys, and the precious manuscripts from which they were
inspired. No matter how bright the outdoors, the table always
seemed to collect a gentle glow around its corners, whether from
the nearby candles, the lit brazier, or the sunlight forcing its
way through the thick tapestry over the window. She sat in her
table and took a deep breath, feeling the way a breeze always
seemed to flutter here, making everything move and come alive, from
the fabric of her dress to the delicate parchment of her books.

Her fingers reached out and found the smooth
wooden piece tucked behind the books. She owned a few different
carvings: one of a horse, and a church, and a wooden palisade. But
most precious to her was the carving of a woman, crafted for Aydith
per her request to the royal carpenter. The woman wore a dress, but
leather armor was also carved onto her form, as well as a helm over
her bound hair. A sword hung from her hip. Aydith traced the rim of
the toy sword with her fingertip while staring longingly towards
the glowing window.

For a moment she began to feel peaceful and
alone once more. Then she realized Hastings stood only a few feet
away from her. She had not even heard him approach.

She started, then quickly put the carved
woman away. She looked at Hastings with a wary expression. “Don’t
worry,” she said. “I don’t think I can escape through the window
from here.”


I am not so sure.” He
attempted a smile. “You look very fast.”


Hmph!” She wanted to be
mad at him, but she could not resist smiling, herself. She turned
away to hide her expression and a heavy silence resumed. She wished
she could return to that quiet place in her mind, but she could
not, and it was not entirely Hastings’s fault.


What was that you were
holding?” asked the hearth companion.


It was nothing,” she said
quickly. “A silly trinket. But I’ve grown out of such
things.”

She heard the maids across the room start
whispering again, and it reminded her of the much louder, but no
less shameful, whisperings that took place among the king’s
witenagemot, or gathering of wise men. Much against her will, she
felt her tears and sobs returning.


My lady?” Hastings watched
her face uncertainly. “Can I … do anything?”


I don’t know.” She
sniffled and looked at him directly. “Can you? Can anyone?” She
shook her head so forcefully that some dark strands of her hair
fell over her small face. “My father tried. God knows he tried. He
even went across the sea and tried to fight the Danes in their
homeland, and I was so proud of him. But he failed. Then he went to
Normandy!” She smiled sadly, even as her chin quivered. “He said he
would capture Duke Richard and take him back to Engla-lond with his
hands tied behind his back, for all that he had done to help the
Danes! What changed, Hastings? Is there something I do not
understand? What makes my father go back and forth between being a
proud and brave king to a cowering fool? Whatever in heaven or hell
made him decide to marry Duke Richard’s daughter? Please tell me
that my father was right after all, and that I am simply too young
and foolish to understand!”

Hastings had a strange look on his face: one
of awe, and bewilderment, and a small degree of discomfort. “I … I
wish I knew, my lady. But in truth, I am as puzzled as you.”

She looked at him with fresh eyes, wondering
if at last she had found someone who did not think she was foolish.
But perhaps he was only being polite, because she was an aetheling
and he was a hearth companion, and perhaps she should not be
sharing her thoughts with him at all. Before she could make up her
mind whether or not to keep speaking, the door flung open, and in
strode her oldest brother.

He was only a few years older than Aydith,
and yet he was treated with a great deal more respect and given
many more responsibilities than she, for of course he was in line
to be king. His name was Aethelstan, and he was one of the fairest
of the royal children, taking more from their father than their
deceased mother. He still could not grow a beard, she noticed, and
had shaved off his last attempt. Nonetheless his face was twisted
into such a disapproving expression that her heart sank within her,
and if she could have she might have melted to the floor.

BOOK: The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling
6.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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