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Athelstan's Mercy


The Anglo Saxon Chronicles Part IV

Athelstan's Mercy AD 931

I, Rhodri of Kernow, write this in remembrance of my patron, Bishop
Asser. The good man loved the House of Wessex all his days and was friend
and confidant to Ælfred, whom men now call the Great. Our King now is
Athelstan, may The Good Lord and the Saints keep him, and Bishop Asser
would have been full of joy to see it.

For surely there can have been few Kings his equal. Even Great Ælfred
had faults that none could overlook. Athelstan is a man without peer. His
appearance and demeanour are all regal and he has the love of all his
people like none before him. Lest I be accused of courting favour, let it
be known that I am a Briton of the West, not a Saxon. I have no great love
for the people who stole our land these many years past. Nonetheless, I
own Athelstan as my King.

I recall the King as a boy at his grandfather's knee. I had him in my
charge for lessons. He was a beautiful child with hair like gold and eyes
the grey of the winter sea. I remember him being sent into Mercia for
protection. Many thought his father, the late King, sought his death from
jealousy but I know not. Now that Edward is dead he does not want for

Just this past year King Athelstan came here to Mældubesburg. Although
many years have passed, he knew me still and cried aloud for joy at seeing
his old teacher. He has grown into a handsome man with flaxen hair - still
shot through with the gold of his childhood. Although not much above
middling height, his presence fills any room. He is soft-spoken, for a

This tale I now recount was told to me by old Hereward of Middletun. He
is nearly four score years now but still has a silver tongue when he minds
to use it. I have had this story, too, from other men. It is so true of
the King that no man should doubt it. I say this, even if it be a sin; it
is good to write of the matters of men once in a while. May God forgive
me, but the Lives of saints can be tedious work for the son of a bard!

Rhodri op Kernow In the Year of Grace Nine Hundred and Thirty One

Author's Note: Athelstan's Mercy

Athelstan is perhaps the most obscure of the old Saxon Kings. Even his
origins are shrouded in mystery. He was the son of Edward the Elder,
grandson of Ælfred the Great but his mother's identity is not known. She
is described simply as a 'woman of Mercia'. The implication is clearly
that she was not of any special significance and she died soon after
Athelstan's birth.

There is a tradition that Ælfred intended Athelstan as his heir but the
boy was only six years old when Ælfred died. Edward married after
Athelstan's birth and produced a number of legitimate children. All of
these were still minors at the time of Edward's death in 924 AD. Athelstan
was elected King with the help of considerable Mercian support. He had
been raised in Mercia following an attempt to blind him as a child and his
Mercian mother ensured his popularity in that country.

Athelstan never married and, as far as we know, remained deliberately
celibate to ensure that there was no dispute over the succession after his
death. We are told that he only agreed to become King on the understanding
that he was seen as holding the Country upon trust for his half-brothers,
Edward's legitimate heirs. We cannot judge how true this is but it is
clear that the succession was undisputed on his death and this was
remarkable in Saxon times.

During his reign, he achieved total dominance over all of Britain. Both
the Scots and Welsh Kings acknowledged him as overlord. There were still
challenges to face in the shape of Scandinavian invaders but Athelstan went
to great lengths to ensure that the Danelaw was fully integrated into the
Kingdom and his Danish subjects fought at his side.

Athelstan's abhorrence of the death penalty is well recorded. One of
the last of his laws passed before his death in 940 AD specifically forbade
the execution of anyone under the age of sixteen. He also freely pardoned
any criminals that repented and showed themselves willing to make amends.
One very unusual aspect of his reign was his habit of moving the King's
Court around the Country. He held meetings as far apart as Exeter and York
and does not seem to have held Court in the same town any two years

Finally, a word about place names: Mældubesburg is Malmesbury, where
Athelstan is buried. Grantanbrycg is modern day Cambridge and Colneceaster
is Colchester in Essex.

Athelstan is, of course, an historical character. All the rest, and
this entire story, are my own imaginings

Athelstan's Mercy AD 931

This was to be the last year that Hereward of Middletun would take his
place among the Witan, the King's Council. He was almost seventy-seven and
although still spry, Athelstan's habit of moving the Council from one town
to another was proving too much for the old man. Hereward had served three
Kings now and he would plainly own that Athelstan was the easiest of the
three to get along with. He had worshipped Ælfred, done his duty by Edward
but he actually liked Athelstan, both as a man and a King.

This new King had none of Edward's arrogance nor had he Ælfred's
impetuosity. Athelstan was warm, human, energetic and yet considered in
his actions. 'If only he would stay in one place,' Hereward mused, 'I
could serve him yet.' Athelstan, however, could not stay in one place. He
would say it was his duty to bring the King to the people and not, as had
been customary, for the people to attend the King. In this year of 931,
the Witan had met at Wiltun, Kinges Wortig and, now, at Colneceaster in the
Danelaw. Until Athelstan had taken the throne, it was unheard of for a
Saxon King to enter Danelaw without an army at his back. Now the King was
here together with the Witan and it promised to be an interesting session.

Athelstan intended to allow the Danish part of his Kingdom to follow
their own laws and customs. He would not try to impose Saxon ways on the
people beyond basic principles. The Danes had their own Moot, which they
called a 'Vapnatak'. It was in the King's mind to see local government
executed through these gatherings. Already in the seven years since
Athelstan had come to the throne, the Danes of Danelaw regarded themselves
as his subjects and he, in his turn, had admitted Danish Jarls to the
Witan. There only remained the matter of the blood feud.

men have said that was Athelstan was womanish in his law-making. Blood
feuds had been outlawed in Saxon England. The Danes clung hard to this
practice. If a man were to be killed, it was a sacred duty for his kin to
avenge him. This led, in turn, to more killing. Hereward once said that
it was not the killing that the offended Athelstan but the futility.
Whatever the reason, the King's face was set against the ancient practice
so when a young Dane was called before the King's Court, charged with
pursuing a blood feud, everyone waited with bated breath to see what the
King would do.

The accused was one Thori, a youth of some fifteen years from the Burgh
of Grantanbrycg. The Court was full as the slim lad was marched in, almost
hidden between four of the Thegn's men. The King's Magister was presiding
and the case against young Thori was an easy one to judge. He didn't even
deny that he had killed two Saxons, men of the same Thegn of Grantanbrycg.
There was much chattering in the crowd as they debated whether the guilty
man would die by hanging or stoning. No-one doubted that die he would. A
sudden hush spread through the Hall. Athelstan had entered. He took a
seat on a side bench without ceremony and settled down to listen with the

The Magister was overcome with confusion. His place in Law was as the
King's representative; yet here was the King himself, come to see his
justice dispensed. The Magister's courage forsook him and he turned in
deference to Athelstan.

"My Lord, you have come at an opportune time. I was just about to
sentence this rascal to be stoned. Much better he should hear his doom
from your lips."

Athelstan arched a brow and rose. His appearance at this time was not
accidental. He meant to use the opportunity to make it plain to all that
the time of the blood feud was long past. "I will try the case, " he said
and motioned to the Magister to step aside so that the King might take his
place at the bench. All stood in honour of the King but Athelstan waved
them away with a smile. He turned to the Thegn who had brought the charge.

"Shall we begin again?"

"As My Lord pleases."

"Just so. We will hear the evidence."

It was swiftly done. The Thegn's men recounted how the two dead men had
accidentally killed a young Danish girl while out hunting. Such accidents
happened and no malice or blame was found to attach to the hunters. Thori
had refused to accept the verdict of his Thegn and sought out the men and
killed them brutally and in coward's fashion, slaying them in their sleep.
The young Dane remained silent. If anything he looked bored with the tale,
having heard it so many times before. Athelstan, too, remained silent. He
watched the speakers attentively and nodded encouragement for them to
continue if they faltered. He appeared to pay no attention to Thori
whatsoever. The Dane expected no more. He had heard the truth twisted and
his honour slandered so many times now he had given up hope of better.

It was not that he was resigned to his fate. He admitted killing the
men; was proud he had done so. Siggerith would rest easier knowing her
killers had not survived her long. He had not expected justice from the
Saxons. His Thegn was one of the old King Edward's men, put in place to
keep the peace and remind the vanquished of the King's victories. Even
Thori's own people chose to believe the calumnies. If he did not quite
feel despair, he harboured a fatalistic resentment and cynicism. He was to
die. What more was there to talk about?

As the story wound to its conclusion Athelstan turned at last to look at
the accused youth. Thori met the King's eyes defiantly. He was a warrior
and the son of warriors. Let them say he killed by night. He knew the
truth and he knew the justice of his cause. It was enough. It had to be
enough. He was taken aback to see curiosity in the steady, grey gaze where
he had expected condemnation.

"Thori of Grantanbrycg. You have heard the evidence of your Thegn and
his sworn men. What say you to this matter?"

Thori thought for a moment and then shrugged. There seemed little point
in argument. If the King sought to amuse himself by humbling a Dane, well,
he could look elsewhere for sport. The King seemed to have read his mind
for Athelstan smiled gently and, to his increasing wonderment, spoke to him
in Danish.

"Come, Thori. There must be more to this matter than meets the eye. I
cannot believe that a man would fight a blood feud for his honour's sake
and then kill so dishonourably. Much as I abhor the feud, I recognise its
roots lie deep within the soul of all true Danes."

The King then raised his voice and spoke again in Saxon to the Court.

"I am not satisfied with the evidence. Something strikes false in what
we have heard. The Court is adjourned until I discover more of this
matter. Bring Thori of Grantanbrycg to my rooms. We will have the truth
before we have a death!"

And with this the King rose and swept from the Hall, leaving those
behind to gape and chatter at the turn of events. Only the Thegn of
Grantanbrycg looked ill at ease.

When Thori was brought into the King's chamber he was surprised to find
Athelstan attended only by a priest and an old man. The King bade Thori be
seated and courteously introduced the old man as Hereward, Ealdorman of
Middletun and the priest as Fr Anselm, Athelstan's personal chaplain. Yet
again he spoke in Danish and the others, too, added their greetings in
Thori's own tongue. Thori was struck by how at ease they were in the
King's company. The old Thegn was sprawled on a low couch and even the
priest seemed relaxed and jovial.

"Now, " said Athelstan, "Perhaps you will be good enough to tell us here
what you would not say in Court? I am sure you have a tale of your own to
tell. I cannot promise you less than justice but be assured. It shall be
a King's justice. Beyond my writ you will doubtless answer to God but here
on Earth you will surely answer to me." Thori hesitated. The old man made
an encouraging motion with his hand. The priest, too, seemed eager to hear
his story, only cautioning him that if he lied to his King, he lied also to
his maker and would put his mortal soul in danger. With a shudder, Thori

" My Lord, I am the fourth of my line to bear the name Thori and the
third to be born in this land. I am Thori Thorisson and live, as all now
know, in the Burgh of Grantanbrycg. At this New Year I was betrothed to
Siggerith the daughter of Aske, an old friend of my father's and a distant
kinsman. Alas, Aske died soon afterwards and as Siggerith was alone in the
world, my father welcomed her to our hearth. We were to wed this harvest,
when I shall be sixteen. Siggerith was my younger by but a few days so it
was time enough for us both.

"Some six weeks since, Siggerith was foully raped and murdered by two of
the Thegn's men. I faced these men and killed them. Not, as they claim,
in the coward's way but face-to-face and together. I used my father's
dagger for I have none of my own beyond a belt-knife for the table. My
Lord, it was not a blood feud but rather that Siggerith was denied justice.
Her killers walked free, claiming a hunting accident. I saw the blood on
her thighs. I saw the old arrow pushed into the knife wound to disguise
the manner of her death. I went to the Thegn but he would not see me. I
went to the Reeve but he sent me away. No one would help us, My Lord. I
could not let the lie stand. I killed the murderers. I regret nothing
save Siggerith's death. I loved her, you see."

Thori fell silent and the others could see the tears glistening in his
eyes as he strove to master himself. Athelstan regarded the youth with a
blank face. Whatever emotion the King was feeling was disguised by his
wooden look. Not so Hereward, who was beside himself.

"By Cuthbert's Sainted Bones! My Lord, I know something of this boy's
heart. My own betrothed was abducted by Mad Ivar. I swore vengeance on
him and all his kin and had Great Ælfred's support in the enterprise. The
lad is right. This wasn't blood feud but the search for justice!"

Athelstan smiled. "Hereward, I know your story - who does not. It was
a thing of the stuff of sagas. But even you know that vengeance and
justice are not one and the same. Does not the Bible tell us that
vengeance is the province of God?" Fr Anselm nodded vigorously and
recounted the verses in Latin until silenced by a look from Athelstan. The
King turned again to Thori.

"There is much here for us to contemplate. Your tale puts matters in
different odour but still I would know more. Did you witness the murder or
the rape you claim?"

Thori shook his head unhappily. "No, My Lord. I believe there were
those who did among the Thegn's men but none will speak for fear of their
master. All in Grantanbrycg know that Siggerith was murdered but none dare
say so. Even my father counselled caution and he loved her well. I am the
last of his children living and his heir. He did not want me endangered;
however much he wished himself for justice."

Athelstan nodded understanding and dismissed Thori with the promise that
he would investigate further before reconvening the Court. After the
Danish youth had left, Athelstan turned to his companions.

"What do you think, Hereward? You know these people as well as any man.
Is he telling the truth?"

"I believe he is, My Lord, at least as far as he knows it."

"What do you mean, old friend?"

"There is something in this matter that makes me uneasy. If things
happened as young Thori believes, I don't see the Thegn allowing his men to
get off scot-free. At very least, even with an accident, there should have
been an offer of wergild. And Thori does not strike me as a man who would
pursue a blood feud if the girl had died through sheer mischance.
Something is wrong here, Sire. I don't wish to cry 'stinking fish' but I
like it not at all."

Athelstan nodded and turned to Fr Anselm. The priest had been silent
throughout the interview with Thori and now he looked deep in thought.

" I agree with Hereward, My Lord. Some men have the guile to appear
what they are not. I don't count Thori Thorisson among them. I take him
to be a straight-forward sort of lad; proud of his people and jealous of
their honour. Unless I'm much mistaken, I cannot see him killing by
stealth in the night."

The King nodded solemnly. "I agree with you both," he said. "Now it
only remains to decide what we shall do about it."

The three of them discussed the affair for some time. Eventually it was
decided that Hereward would talk further to Thori while Fr Anselm would
ride to Grantanbrycg and ask questions of the folk there, including the
priests. In the meant time, Athelstan would adjourn the case for a week,
pending the outcome of the investigations.

Two days later Hereward visited Thori. The accused had been lodged at
the monastery, locked in a rough penitent's cell with a guard placed on the
door. Hereward waved the guard away and entered. He was struck at once by
the bleak and cynical look in Thori's eyes. Easing himself down onto the
low, hard cot, Hereward smiled. He stretched and yawned mightily and then
asked the boy in fluent, but accented, Danish:

"Not quite a Thegn's Hall, is it?"

"You would know, Lord, not I."

Hereward laughed aloud. "True, boy," he said. "True indeed. Forgive
an old man's curiosity but I would know more of you and Siggerith."


"Call it a feeling, call it a whim, if you will. Let me first tell you
my own story - the one about me and my Elfgirda and Mad Ivar - the one men called the Boneless. Perhaps you will see that we are not so different
after all."

Thori shrugged as if it was a matter of total indifference to him.
Hereward, undaunted, began his tale. He had not earned the name 'Hereward
Silver-tongue' for nothing and it wasn't long before Thori was caught up in
the story of the abduction and rescue of Elfgirda all those years ago.
When Hereward had reached the climactic scene - the death of Ivar,
swordless and drowning in the fen - Thori's eyes were shining. This was,
just as the King had said, the stuff of sagas. Hereward finished his tale and turned his twinkling eyes on Thori.

"So you see, my boy, that I was much of an age with you when all this
took place. I was not always a greybeard with a creaking back. So you
tell me now of Siggerith."

" Well, Lord, where should I start?"

"I've always found the beginning to be a good place. How came you to
know the maid?"

"I was ten years old. My father has a small farm outside the Burgh. He
sent me into the town to take a message to his old friend Aske. I can
remember it still - it was drilled into me until I was word perfect.
'Thori Thorisson - that's my father's name too - desires the company of
Aske Ericsson at his home. We wish to celebrate my wife's name-day and no
feast would be complete without so old and true a friend.' Well, I gave
Aske the message and he smiled and took me into his house and fed me
oatcakes. He introduced his only child, a daughter named Siggerith. His
wife died some years before so there were just the two of them. Even then,
at ten years, she was as pretty a lass as I ever saw. Her hair was red and
her eyes green and her skin, sir, it was like, well, new milk. I sat there
all tongue-tied and they teased me that I couldn't talk unless I had conned
my speech beforehand. I felt myself burning with embarrassment to be such
a loon before these people, but they were not unkind, you understand, just
chaffing me.

"My mother's name-day came and Aske and Siggerith arrived at our farm.
The adults were soon chatting as old friends do and I was told to take
Siggerith out to the barn to show her a newborn calf. I did so gladly but
was still shy in her company. She was easy with me, though, and it wasn't
too long before we were playing together as if we had been friends all our
lives. I took her down to the woods to show her a squirrel's drey and we
watched the tiny red kittens take their first steps along the branches. I
can remember the mother squirrel scolding them when they failed to follow
her. She was chattering away like an old fishwife and it made us laugh.

"Have you noticed, sir, that when you share laughter with someone, it
sort of brings you closer together? I think it does anyway. Well, that's
how it started. After that I was always looking for an excuse to go the
Grantanbrycg and Siggerith found reasons to visit the farm. Our parents never said anything at the time but we learned that they were pleased.
This was what they had all hoped for but had left it up to the two of us.
Well, sir, as you know, things start to change soon after the age of ten.
It happened with Siggerith first. I used to tease her that her bum was
spreading and soon she was more woman than girl, if you know what I mean.
For a little while we grew apart a bit. I was still a child and she was
something more; but I grew to match her and we began to see each other

Hereward realised that the boy was no longer talking to him but simply
remembering out loud. He stopped making any replies and watched Thori's
eyes. They were open but did not see the crude surroundings or the rough
stone walls. They were focussed on an earlier, happier time. Hereward
knew the boy spoke from the heart. There was much in Thori's tale that
reminded him of his own youth and wooing of Elfgirda. 'I see no falsehood
in this lad,' he thought. 'If the rest of the tale's as true, we will yet
serve the King's justice.' Thori, for his part, was unaware of the old Saxon's scrutiny. He was lost in memory, bittersweet though it was.

"By the time we were both fourteen, we had an understanding. Siggerith
was still more forward in certain ways than I was. I was almost more
interested in my weapon training than I was in women. It struck me odd
that she would want to kiss and touch as much as she did. I found it
pleasant enough but it stirred strange feelings in me that I couldn't put a
name to at the time. I found these feelings a bit disturbing, frightening
maybe. Of course I knew how mating happened. I'm a farm boy. I'd led the
bull to the heifers often enough. Somehow I didn't connect any of that
with the way I was feeling; at least not at first.

"One day we were out gathering blackberries for my mother and stopped in
the woods to rest a while. Like always at those times, Siggerith would
slide over and sit beside me, her head on my shoulder. This time, when she
kissed me, it was full on the mouth and her tongue pressed against my mouth
and slipped between my lips. She was most fierce in her kissing then and
I, still much of a boy, knew not how to act. She took my hand and put it
on her breast and made a small noise, deep in her throat. I found myself
getting hard then, like I do sometimes at night, and the feel of her breast and the touch of her lips was driving me mad. I had the urge to do
something else but didn't know what. Siggerith did, though; she unlaced
her bodice and pushed my hand inside so now I could feel her breast against
my palm, with no clothing in between.

"In all my life I never felt anything so perfect. It was like magic.
It was soft and warm and yet firm at the same time. Her little nubs grew
hard under my touch and I divined that this was the centre of her pleasure
for she grew wilder when I rubbed them. I swear I could have died for joy
right there. She filled me up. I can't say it better. I thought my soul
had flown away to heaven.

"I must have been like a mooncalf to her for all I could do was grasp
her and swear I loved her. My tool was fit to burst my breeches, and I was
amazed when she seized me there and I think I groaned aloud. Before I knew
it, my breeches were down and she was stroking me. It was only a few brief
moments before I spent myself. This seemed to please her mightily and she
said it was enough for the nonce but she would show me true happiness once
we were wed. I tell you, Lord, that I don't think I could have been more
happy then at that moment. I bent and kissed her breasts but she stopped
me after a brief time and said that we should return to our blackberrying.

"After that, we would contrive to repeat the adventure whenever we had
the chance. Once she took me in her mouth and jumped away in surprise when
I spurted. My seed was in her hair and on her face but she just laughed
and said and she needed to practice. Once she let me touch her sex and
shuddered and moaned and carried on so that I thought I had hurt her.
Again she laughed at my discomfort and bade me wait 'til we were wed so she
could show me all her mysteries. One thing I swear by the Blessed Virgin,
all the Saints and the honour of my kin, Lord. In all our time together
she remained a maiden. I loved her far to much to do her any dishonour."

Hereward watched as Thori's mind slowly returned to the present. There
were tears in the boy's eyes and he turned his face away to hide his shame.
Hereward sighed. "Don't fret, lad, it's clear you loved her deeply. There
is no shame in such sorrow." He paused. "Now tell me how she came to die."

"As I told the King, Lord, we were betrothed at the New Year. We Danes
still believe that this is a lucky time, but it wasn't for us. Soon after,
Aske died and Siggerith came to live under our roof. Of course, she was
much saddened by her father's death but found respite with my family. She
had never known her mother well and she and my mother grew close, as women

"One day, at the end of the third month, she went into the Burgh to take
a basket of eggs to the market. She left as soon as it was light. It's
not far from our farm to Grantanbrycg so she planned to be there for the
market's opening. Most times my mother went; but she was helping my father and I with the lambing that day so Siggerith went in her stead. We were
busy all day with a difficult ewe and did not notice that Siggerith had not
returned until late afternoon. I set off to meet her. I was sure she
would be on her way back by then. I suppose we thought that the market had
been slow for most times we would have sold the eggs by noon.

"Anyway, I found her just as the road entered the woods on the
Grantanbrycg side. She was lying beside the track. Two men were bent over
her. I ran up and they jumped away from her. There was an arrow in her
neck and she was dead. The men began to tell me that it was an accident.
They said they had shot at a hare and, by great mischance, Siggerith
stepped into the arrow's path. I've spent my life in those parts, sir, but
I've never seen a hare in woodland. Oh, there are hares a-plenty in the
fields but none in the woods that I know. I was too shocked to think such
at the time, you understand. This came to me later, after we had borne her
body home.

"I went to fetch a priest while my mother prepared her body for the
winding sheet. It was my mother who discovered the blood on her thighs.
At first she thought it was just Eve's curse but then she saw that
Siggerith was torn and bruised. It was clear as daylight, sir, my mother said, that Siggerith had been ill-used. There was more. When the arrow
was withdrawn, you could see it was old and the shaft was warped. What
hunter would use such? And the wound, sir, it was not a hole, such as an
arrow might make but thinner, longer. My father swears it was a dagger
thrust that caused it. We went to the Thegn next day and told him all. He
waved us away.

"I brooded on these things for some days and decided I would have things
out with the men who killed her. I took my father's long knife, we don't
own a proper sword, sir, and went to Grantanbrycg. It was late in the day
when I found them. I demanded the truth of her death but they laughed at
me. I said I knew they had raped and murdered my Siggerith and told they
would die for it. They spat in my face and called me 'Danish filth'. One
said I should ever regret not having had such a tasty morsel for myself. I
pulled out my knife and we fought. They must have thought me just a farm boy for one cried to the other "You take him." I am a warrior, sir and the
son of warriors. I was taught well; better than them, as it turned out.

"I killed him then. It was done too quick for my heart but it was done.
I fought the other. He, too, I killed. At first I rejoiced; but it didn't
bring Siggerith back. The Thegn's men took me then. They gave out that I
had crept into the hall and slain the men in their sleep. Next they
claimed that I had been following the blood feud. They branded me a coward
and brought me before the Court. The rest you know, sir."

Hereward nodded. He had much to think about. He didn't doubt a word of
Thori's story. He knew the Danes well and knew that honour stood above all
else with them. They could be brutal in war but so could his own people.
War was war but murder, especially of a young girl, was something he could
not countenance. He said farewell and rose, stiffly from the cot. "I can
promise nothing, lad, save I will tell the King all you have told me. We
must now await Fr Anselm. Be sure, however, the King will not rush to
judgement in this or any matter. The man is in love with the truth and has
no liking for injustice."

Fr Anselm returned at dusk two days later. After he had refreshed
himself, he went to the King's chambers to meet again with Athelstan and
Hereward. The latter recounted the substance of the story he had had from
Thori and then the King turned to Fr Anselm. "And what of your
investigations? Can you shed more light upon this dark matter?" The priest
nodded vigorously. He was a small, spare man and always put Hereward in
mind of a cock sparrow with his quick, jerky movements.

"Indeed, My Lord, I believe I can. I sought out the priest who attended
the Thorisson farm to shrive the body of the girl. He confirms there was
much anger and they were insisting that the girl had been stabbed and not
killed with an arrow. The man himself would not swear to it as he claimed
no great knowledge of wounds but he did say they were most convincing.

"I spoke to many folk who had been in the market that day, both Danes
and Saxons. Almost all remembered the girl selling eggs. From three I had
an interesting tale. When she had done, which they claim was just before
noon, she was approached by some of the Thegn's men. My witnesses did not
hear what was said but all claimed they saw her leave with these men and
that she appeared to go willingly. They also thought she looked fearful.

"There was better to come, My Lord. I found a carter who was travelling
towards Grantanbrycg late that very afternoon. He remembers meeting two
men on horseback who made great show of telling him they were out hunting.
One had a large bundle slung over his saddle. The carter thought it
strange to be going out so late in the day on horseback as this suggested a
journey of some miles. He also said he passed no one else before reaching
the Burgh. He should have encountered the maid, Siggerith, if the evidence
given was true. I have commanded all these witnesses, in your name, Sire,
to appear before the Court two days from now."

Athelstan smiled. "You have truly surpassed yourself, Anselm." Hereward
added his own approbation and Anselm positively glowed with pleasure. The
King now looked serious and called for ink and parchment. "Let us now
consider what we know, " he said. He made some brief notes and then began
to speak anew.

"The girl Siggerith was, at least by Thori's reckoning, something of a
beauty. She was also somewhat playful and aware of, what shall we say,
Anselm, the pleasures of the flesh? However, we have Thori's word that
that she was a maiden. She is seen selling eggs at the market and then
leaving with the Thegn's men; somewhat affeared but not resisting. What
does that suggest to you, Hereward?"

"That she was summoned by someone important, My Lord?"

"Quite so. Now who in Grantanbrycg would be considered important?"

"My guess would be the Thegn himself, Sire, or someone close to him."

"My thoughts exactly. What do we know of this Thegn?"

"He was placed by your father, My Lord, about a dozen years since. He
is said to be no lover of Danes but I have heard little else about him.
What says the Church, Anselm?"

"Much the same. He has three sons and a daughter living. His wife is
devout but the man himself makes the customary observance and nothing more.
There's little else to add save rumours of a bastard or two, but that's not

"How true. No, spare yourself Anselm, I took no slight. The world
knows my lineage, for good or ill. It is hardly the fault of the child if
the mother is unwed. So to business. We have the evidence of the carter.
A sober man, would you say, Anselm?"

"Aye, My Lord. And not a native of those parts so he has no reason to
hold to any faction in this matter."

"Better and better. What shall we do then, my friends? Shall we summon
the Thegn for his account here and now or wait on him in Court? I think we
should hear him first, as we heard Thori, in discretion. What say you?"

The two agreed and the Thegn was summoned before the King. Athelstan
recounted all that had been learned. As the King spoke, Hereward pretended
to be nodding off to sleep but he watched the Thegn's face intently for the
effect of the King's words. They were not prepared for the reaction that
came however. The Thegn of Grantanbrycg flung himself to his knees at the
King's feet.

"My Lord!" He cried. "I can hide the truth no longer. I killed the
Danish girl. I swear I never meant it."

"Go on," said Athelstan and his voice was chill.

"It happened thus, My Lord. I saw her in the market. She was
beautiful, Lord and I was consumed with lust. I had to have her. I sent
my men to summon her. When they brought her to me I saw she was younger
than I'd thought. Still, my mind was clouded with evil and I offered her
gold if she would lie with me. She replied prettily. She swore she was a
maiden and betrothed to some uncouth ploughboy. She begged my indulgence
and made as if to leave. I took her then by force. She spoke true; she
was indeed a maid. When the madness left me, I repented. I offered her
more gold; she threw it from her as if it were ordure. I knew, then, she
would cry rape. To my eternal shame, I killed her. I told two of my men to get rid of the body; to take it to the woods and make it look like a
hunting accident. The rest you know."

Athelstan's face was a mask. Hereward could feel the anger burning in
the King and Anselm was knelt in prayer for the soul of the murdered girl.
There was a long moment's silence in the room before the King spoke again
in a calm, quiet voice. "You will come before the Court two days from now
and recount again what you have told me here," he said. The Thegn bowed
himself out and the three remaining men looked at each other. "It seems we
had the right of it, Sire," said Hereward, "Yes," The King replied.
"More's the pity.

The Court convened again on the appointed day. The Great Hall was
packed for all had come to hear the King's judgement. Thori stood, as
before, accused. There was much murmuring when Athelstan summoned the
Thegn of Grantanbrycg.

All were silent when they heard the Thegn confess. The nobleman wept
openly as he recounted his tale. When he was done he turned to Thori and
begged his forgiveness. "I have doubly wronged you, young man," he said.
"I took from you your betrothed and sought to hide my crime. I would have
taken your life also, had not the King intervened. I thank God, at least,
that I was spared this second crime."

Thori looked stunned by all that he heard. At length he sank to his
knees. "My Lord," he said. "I have committed murder. The men I slew were
not responsible for Siggerith's death. I killed them unknowing, Lord, but
I killed them just the same. This man," he gestured to the Thegn, "took
from me the woman I loved and would have wed. I took two men's lives for
what I foolishly called justice. We are both murderers."

Athelstan stood and raised a hand for silence, for a hubbub had broken
out at Thori's words.

"This is now my judgement. Thori Thorisson, you are guilty of murder
although you did not have a guilty mind. You will pay wergild of two
hundred shillings to each of your victims' families. There is to be no
continuance of any blood feuds in this matter, on pain of death."

The King now turned to the Thegn.

"You committed rape and murder and would have murdered this boy too, by
false witness. Do you repent of your sins?"

The Thegn swore by all that is holy that he did repent, sincerely, and
would do anything in his power to make amends.

"You will pay wergild to Thori Thorisson of six hundred shillings for
the slaying of the maid Siggerith. It is my further command that you enter
a monastery and do penance for her rape and murder by saying a mass every
day for her departed soul until the day you die."

The King then addressed the host. "There has been too much killing
here. I can see no purpose in more death. This is my judgement and this is
my justice. Will any here gainsay me?"

There was silence until a shout of assent was heard from Hereward. All
assembled took up the cry in praise of Athelstan's mercy.

Later that evening, Hereward and Anselm were once more attending the
King. Athelstan was in expansive mood and the conversation ranged hither
and thither before returning to the day's events.

"What do you think of my judgement? Truth now, there is none to hear
but us."

"Well, sire," said Anselm. "It would have served nobody to have killed
the boy and as for the Thegn, God has a new servant that he was not
expecting." Hereward nodded agreement. "It has always struck me as a pity
when youngsters are put to death. So much living wasted!" Athelstan smiled
at the old man. "Hereward," he said, "I couldn't have put it better. Do
you know, I've a mind to make a law to prevent just such atrocity?"


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