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Six months earlier
St. Agnes' Eve, 1023 AD
-Tennyson (1842): Godiva
From the top of the hill I could see it all.
The Middle Lands. The land of my people, the land of my cyn, my kin. The land I loved.
Below the town lay, its streets fanned like the bones of a fish, thatched roofs still dappled with late winter snow. Smoke curled from the roof holes, above the cauldrons cooking on the flames, full of hearty briw. My stomach rumbled.
Beyond the town, the smaller villages clustered like children at a mother's skirts. Nurtured by the farming land, green and white fields striped here and there with brown. Sheltered by the wildwoods of Arden. Sacred, magic, too far to see. Where I loved to ride.
At one end of the main street our thatched hall loomed, tall and proud within its pickets, the watchtower pointed high. At the other soared the cross of the new church my father had built. A Christ's mass gift for my mother, for the town.
"I won't stop there," he'd vowed. "I'll rebuild our church and our hall, not in wattle and clay, but in stone. Here in the Middle Lands we shall have a fortress, a castle fit for a king and queen, with strong walls and a watchtower that can never be burnt. I'll build in stone, yes, in stone."
"Better to have castles made of wood than made of air, Radulf," My mother had teased.
In reply he'd laughed. "Indeed, Morwen. But dreams must come first."
Dreams must come first.
Leaning forward, I raised my face, as a snowdrop seeks a slant of sun.
I, too, had dreams.
Strong hands clenched my waist.
"What's this?" A voice hissed in my ear. "All alone, without your bodyguard?"
My boots skidded in the mud as I whirled around.
He kissed me.
He'd kissed me before. A friendly peck on the cheek, a brotherly benison on the brow, a playful lingering on the lips.
Not like this.
His teeth, sharp, teasing, opened my lips, sucked me in, and sent me spinning. Into the whirlpool of his arms he wrenched me closer.
My hands around his neck. His hands under my cloak. Our bodies pressed together. No space between.
The clean metal smell of his mail-shirt. The water taste of his tongue.
Out of the vortex. Out of his arms. I managed to twist away.
"That's what happens when you're out alone without your bodyguard."
Encased in their leather my legs stuttered as I tried to move. I refused to ride in a long shift, sidesaddled. Leather tunic and leggings like a man, brown, tight. Boots to my thighs. Sure of my strength.
But he'd caught me unawares.
"Edmund." I gasped. "You're my bodyguard."
Lightning cracked across his face.
When he'd come to Coventry as a child, so thin, so scared, he'd never smiled. Not for months, as I'd tempted him to play in the courtyard, my wooden sword at my side. Still lean, even now, but tall and strong, a sapling grown. A man.
"A cniht, a knight, at last." He'd gone on campaigns with my father. Earned his status. Made me proud. "And now I'm to leave you again. What kind of bodyguard is that?"
"Cnihts have to attend the Witan. There'll be other guards here in Coventry."
"But do they know you as I do?" Sleek-footed, he shifted near. "Will they guess where to find you? Up on this hill? Out in the wildwoods?"
He touched the tip of the bow slung on his back. "I'm the only one who can hunt you down."
My stomach eddied.
"Godiva. Tell me before I go. You know what I want. Let me speak to your father."
"I'm not ready."
Fist on hilt he drew back, his eyes silver shields.
It wasn't what I expected to say.
It wasn't what he expected to hear.
He turned away, but not before I'd seen disappointment reflected in those grey mirrors. Anger, too.
"Edmund." My fingers on his sword arm. "When you're home from the Witan I'll give you an answer."
Darting away I sped down the hill to where my horse waited. "I'll race you home."
His boots pounded. "You've had a head start. And no acrobatics!"
"Try and catch me!"
On the wind Edmund's voice chased after me. "One day, Godiva."
* * *
"Hold still, my lady."
Aine tugged my hair as she began to braid.
"Where were you this afternoon?"
"Up on the hill."
I shook my head. No need to ask who'd been with me, not for Aine. Small and dark, she'd come with my mother from the west, where many of the old ways still held fast. Herb craft and healing and an uncanny knack of knowing what others were thinking before they spoke. Some of the other servants were wary, giving her a wide berth, muttering about magic. But my parents trusted Aine completely.
An expert twitch. The braid over my shoulder, tied firm with wool.
"There now." She picked up the brown cloak lying on the bed. "All you need is your..."
"Aine!" I grabbed her arms and held her upright. "What is it?"
Her cheeks had paled. "A sight."
"Sit down. Let me get you some water."
Still clutching my cloak she shuddered onto the bench next to the fire.
From the earthenware pitcher I filled a cup and passed it to her.
"Tell me what you saw."
After drinking deeply she shook her head. "It's not clear."
"But you saw something."
"Someone. A face," she admitted reluctantly.
"It was too quick. All I know is that I'll be glad when your parents have returned from the Witan."
"Should I tell them you've seen something?"
"No need to worry Lady Morwen."
"But if you've had a premonition-"
Aine stood up. With the cloak she mantled my shoulders. "I don't know what it was. I'm all right now. Go."
"You don't want me to stay with you?"
"Go to your parents." With a gentle push I was out the bower door.
* * *
Snowflakes dusted my cloak. The wind gnawed and bit. My fur collar muffled against the cold, I raced across the courtyard.
On the bottom step I paused. I'd always loved that moment, just before entering. Outside. Looking in.
From within I could hear the talk and laughter. Chinks of light framed the windows, hung from inside with cowhide blankets. At the center of the hall the fire would be glowing, its flame-shadows flickering on the walls. Shield-bronzes gilded, timbers honeyed. Candles ablaze in iron-fist clusters, beacon high on the painted beams. Trestle tables folded out to welcome all.
Soon the mead cups would be full.
Smoke rising from the chimney. Pork roasting on the spit. Even in the open air I could smell it.
I'd been hungry on the hill. Now I was famished.
Through the carved doors.
Snowflakes melted to water drops as I threw back my hood.
On the dais were my parents. Around them thronged the cnihts, the most trusted warriors of our bodyguard. Strong men all. Yet none were as imposing as my father, his cloak clasped with the silver sparrow-hawk, amber at the eye. An extraordinary substance, he'd showed me. It could withstand fire.
Beside him, my mother. Gowned in red, garnets banded her hair. Brown-gold. The same shade as my own. Behind her woven tapestries brightened the paneled walls. Scenes of battle, hunting, dancing, feasting. Stitched by her needle.
I'd almost reached them when I spied a flaxen-haired girl standing by the fire.
"Beolinda! I didn't know you were coming."
We embraced tightly.
"My father brought a message. Of course, I begged to come, too."
"Can you stay long?"
"Well, that depends." She scanned the crowd.
"Edmund's not staying in Coventry." I grinned. "He's going to the Witan."
She sighed. "He's such a Saxon. So blond and tall. But he doesn't notice me."
"I'm sure he notices you." The hourglass shape beneath Beolinda's tunic had attracted many a warrior's attention.
"Not really." She pouted. "He cares only for you." She seemed to have caught Aine's gift of premonition. "Your parents would be pleased."
"Pleased about what?"
"If you married Edmund. He's cniht to Lord Radulf now, isn't he, and the best shot in the Middle Lands. Once I saw a marksman split an apple on top of a girl's head." Her smile curved. "I'd let Edmund do that to me."
Edmund made his own arrows. Elm wood. Iron-tipped. That he was the best shot in the Middle Lands sometimes irked. I rarely enjoyed being bested.
But my pure grey gelding, Ebur, had beaten his bay stallion home.
"The Middle Lands will be yours one day, after all," Beolinda said. "You'll need a lord to rule the shire."
"I need no lord, not even Edmund," I retorted.
"Taking my name in vain?"
I spun around.
"That's the second time today you've caught me unawares."
That lightning smile.
Into the vortex.
"Then you should be on your guard." His grey cloak rippled as he took my arm. "I chased you all the way home. Come and eat."
"Hello, Edmund." Lashes fluttered.
His smile flashed. "Hello, Linda."
At the high table she engineered to sit beside him, while I took my usual place next to my mother.
Raising his goblet, my father stood up. "The hawk-eye is mine! To Coventry!"
The responding cry rang to the rafters. Below, the trestle tables were packed with departing warriors and their families. Townsfolk, too, squeezed in.
"Was Radulf hail! Was Morwen hail!"
Knives drummed the wood.
As he sat down, my father gestured to the brown-garbed man at the foot of the table. "Will you say grace, Brother Aefic?"
Bowing his shaved head, the monk intoned the words. The familiar Latin washed over me. Benedictus, benedicat, per Jesum Christum Dominum Nostrum ...
"Amen," my mother murmured.
"What do you expect of the Witan, Fader?" I asked when my trencher had been filled, hot pork still crackling from the flames.
"A wise council of lords, I hope, but it's long overdue. In these times we Saxons must stand together, in spite of our differences, or the Danes will soon overrun the whole of Engla-lond."
"The Danes." My mother shook her head. From her ears gold glinted. "They continue to plague us."
Edmund scowled. "And we have their Dane law here."
"If you can call it law," my mother added.
"They mock the Saxon way." Edmund gripped his meat-knife. "Our laws respect our people, whatever their rank. A Saxon will always support another Saxon."
My father exhaled. "The Danes rule by force. Not by justice. They're a ruthless race."
"It's an insult that King Canute, a Dane, is on our English throne. It's wrong they rule us." Edmund's skin had flushed.
How well I understood his anger. In the Angle Lands to the east, Edmund's family had been lost to the Danes. Once he would have inherited landholdings far greater than mine, but now they were gone. My father had fostered him, taking him on as a squire before he became a cniht, trained to be skilled with the blade, to defend and uphold the Saxon way.
It had taken time for us to become friends. He'd been wary, I shy. He hadn't wanted to play with a girl. But when I'd routed him with my wooden sword, he'd understood I was a girl to be reckoned with.
"How much Saxon land has fallen now?" Beolinda asked.
My father seized a russet apple from a trencher. Pushing his goblet aside, he placed the red fruit at the center of the table. "Here in the Middle Lands we're safe under Saxon rule."
"Thanks to you, Radulf." My mother patted his arm.
He placed another russet to the left. "To our west, in your homeland, Morwen, the Welsh Lands have resisted Danish invasion."
One russet more set below. "To our south, Wessex remains Saxon."
With a frown he positioned a yellow apple to the right of the central russet. "But to our east, in the Angle Lands, the Danish grip is brutal. Under the Dane law many Saxons are slaves."
Angry muttering among the warriors. Edmund, tight-lipped.
Now my father weighed a yellow apple in one hand, a russet in the other. "But good news has come from the north, from Mercia, where the Danes have so long held sway. I have news of Thurkill the Tall."
I drew in my breath.
"What good news can be brought of a Dane who has plundered Saxon lands and killed good Saxons? Burning homes, killing livestock, and looting churches?" My mother's usually gentle tone was harsh.
"That he has been defeated."
Cheers went up in the hall.
"Thurkill the Tall has been overthrown in the north by a Saxon Lord. Leofric of Mercia."
Casting the yellow apple aside my father dropped the russet onto the table, above the central one representing the Middle Lands. Transfixed, I watched as the Mercian apple rolled and collided with the one below. They lay, touching each other.
Leofric. The strangest sensation came over me when my father said the name. As if I'd heard it many times before. As if I'd spoken it myself.
"Leofric of Mercia? Who is he?" I asked.
"The new earl. Leofric is young but bold. He led a daring campaign against Thurkill and the Danes to regain the north."
"God be praised!" My mother said. "I've long feared for us."
My father squeezed her ringed fingers. "Fear no more. Although his title has been granted by King Canute the Dane, I'm told the new earl is a good Saxon."
"Will he be at the Witan?" I wondered.
"I expect to meet him. What's said of him impresses me. It's to be hoped that young lords such as Leofric of Mercia will restore the Saxon way. But whether he can stop Thurkill the Tall, and the Danish push for land, we shall see."
"You think the Danish peril is upon the Middle Lands?" Edmund demanded.
"Our lands are small, but our position in the heart of Engla-lond makes us mighty."
Edmund nodded. "At the center is power."
Later, when we were eating an apple pudding flavored with honey, the gleeman took up his place in front of the fire and began to sing.
In a low tone no one else could hear, my mother murmured to me. "This Witan Council is important, Godiva. We won't be gone too long and I want to be with your father. That's how you know the man you love. The days are longer when you're apart."
Her attention moved to Edmund, deep in conversation with my father, Beolinda hanging on his every word. "It's a Saxon noblewoman's right to choose the man she wishes to marry."
Many girls were married much younger than me. I'd been given time.
Now Edmund wanted my answer.
"As heiress to the Middle Lands, you must choose wisely." From her belt my mother took some silver keys. "We'll talk more when I return. We charge the care of Coventry to you while we are gone. Hang these from your belt and let them remind you of your duty to our people."
Cool and heavy. The keys had hung around my mother's waist for as long as I could remember. "I'll wear them,Moder. I promise."
For a moment I wondered if I ought to tell her of Aine's foreknowledge. But she turned away to speak to my father.
The gleeman began to beguile me. When I was small I'd fallen asleep at the table listening to the tale of Beowulf, lulled by its rowing rhythm. As my mother carried me to the bower I'd awoken from a dream filled with warriors, battling the monster Grendel.
"Were they real?" I'd asked, half asleep, my arms twining her neck.
"Were who real, my sweetheart?"
"Beowulf. The heroes of the past."
"They're as real as you would have them be, Godiva. As real as love or courage or honor or kindness. Though we can't see these things, they are all that matter."
Her words floated back to me as the gleeman sang.
From down the table, Edmund smiled.
In a flash I knew what my answer would be.
Copyright © 2015 by Eliza Redgold