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The Lady of Mercia


The Anglo Saxon Chronicles Part III

The Lady of Mercia, AD 884-906

I am an old man now, with an old man's failings. It is nine years since
my liege and, dare I venture, my friend, Ælfred, King of Wessex and Rex
Anglorum, passed to greater glory. I fear I shall not be long behind him
for winter chills my bones and I sleep more and more by the brazier in the
Scriptorium. My hands have grown too stiff for fine work these many years
but I may still wield my pen to good effect.

Presently, I dwell on secular matters. I trust that those who follow me
will forgive an old man's foibles. I spent my youth and my prime in the
service of God and one man, a King, it is true, but a man for all that.
Ælfred had his faults, which of us does not? There was true greatness in
him, never more clearly seen than in the service of his Land and its
people. However, he served his family less well, as I shall tell in these

Perhaps it is the fate of great men to excel in those things which men judge to be the most important. Also, perhaps, it is the fate of those who
stand most closely in the shadow of such greatness to find themselves
eclipsed, adumbrated. For it is certain sure that such a doom belonged to
Ælfred's kin.

It was never the king's intent that his family should suffer by neglect;
but only evil men truly intend evil. Nonetheless, it was his doing, or the
lack of such, that caused a great evil, the true consequences of which were
only narrowly avoided, as I shall now recount.

Fr Asser of St Davids Wiltun In the Year of Our Lord, 908.

Author's Note: The Lady of Mercia

Æthelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, was born about 868 AD. She was the
first child of Alfred the Great and was married at the age of sixteen to
Æthelred II of Mercia. This was almost certainly a political alliance.
Alfred's eldest son, Edward, took the throne upon his father's death in
899. There is some evidence to suggest that Alfred intended Edward's son,
Athelstan, to be his successor. Athelstan eventually became King in 924.

Æthelflaed came to real prominence in 911, following her husband's death
and after the events in this story. The wars that eventually led to the
re-conquest of Scandinavian England commenced in AD 909. Again, there is
evidence to suggest that Æthelred was incapacitated for some time before
his death and that Æthelflaed was the de facto ruler of Mercia from about
905. What is beyond dispute is Æthelflaed's military genius.

She had a keen eye for ground, was the mistress of strategy and appears
to have been enormously popular. Some of her greatest victories were
bloodless. Just before her death in 918 AD, the entire Danish Kingdom of
Northumbria was negotiating to place itself under her rule. Unfortunately,
she died at Tamworth in June of that year and the chance was lost. No
similar offer was ever made to Edward. After his sister's death, he seized
the Kingdom of Mercia, which never again enjoyed an independent existence.

Edward was certainly a successful Ruler. By the time of his death in
924, all of England south of the Humber River had been annexed to Wessex
and Mercia disappears from History as an independent kingdom. However, we
see little in the way of improvement to the social, cultural or political
life of his kingdom. The renaissance in learning begun under Alfred was in
abeyance until Athelstan succeeded Edward.

Ælfred, Æthelred of Mercia, Edward, Athelstan and Æthelflaed are all
historical characters. The Danes did sieze Chester and were expelled in
the manner I have described. Æthelwold did dispute Edward's accession to
the throne with Danish help. The rest, and this entire story, are my own

The Lady of Mercia, AD 884-906

"You are so lucky, Hereward."

"My Lady?"

"You married Elfgirda for love. I'm to be married to smelly old Æthelred because father says it's important to the Kingdom."

"Well, My Lady, we all have our duty in these times. And can it be so
bad to be married to the King of Mercia?"

"But he's old, Hereward; older than you, even. Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't
mean that you're old. But his teeth are rotten and his breath stinks!"

The Princess Æthelflaed was walking in the gardens of the Abbey at
Wiltun with Hereward of Middletun. Hereward was one of the inner circle of
King's men and a respected voice on the Witan - the Council - despite his
relatively young age of thirty. He was fond of the young Princess. He had
a deal of sympathy for the girl. Æthelred of Mercia was a dull man with
few redeeming features. King Ælfred was using the marriage to cement
relations between the two surviving Saxon Kingdoms. Even Mercia was only
half a Kingdom. Guthrun and the Danes had seized the eastern portion of
that unhappy land from Æthelred's predecessor, Ceolwulf. Æthelred had
inherited a country that was beaten and cowed and in fear of being finally
crushed between the hammer of the Danes and the anvil of a resurgent

Hereward now looked down at her. She wasn't the beautiful princess of
the sagas, that was sure. Her dark hair spoke of her Frankish ancestry,
for her grandmother had been sister to Charles, King of the Franks. Her
build was on the square side. She was not fat, far from it, but she had
wide shoulders and hips and the effect was exaggerated by her shortness of
stature. She had a pleasant face with lively green eyes and a ready smile.
Hereward enjoyed her company. He sensed a deep-rooted strength in her. It
was no less than he would expect from the first-born child of his King.

He knew all about the impending marriage. Ælfred could be impetuous.
Æthelred of Mercia had suggested closer ties between their Kingdoms.
Hereward wasn't sure that the Mercian entertained any hopes of marriage to
the King's daughter but it fell out thus. Hereward was rarely surprised by
the King these days, having been an almost constant companion since the
dark days on Athelingaig, but he was taken aback by the speed of Ælfred's
promise. "Of course," he had said to Æthelred, "You are quite right. You
shall marry my daughter, Æthelflaed." And the matter was decided.

Ælfred was quite unprepared for his daughter's reaction. She had gone
very pale and still on being told the news. Then she had said, "How little
you must think of me, Father," and walked away, back straight and head held
high. Ælfred had tried to explain, to justify his decision but Æthelflaed
refused to be drawn. All she would say was "It shall be as you command, My
Lord." It was to Ælfred's great sadness that she never called him 'Father'
thereafter. Now, the day had come when she must leave Wessex and travel to
Tamoworthig in Mercia to be married. Hereward had begged the King for
command of her escort. He felt she might need a friend's company on such a

It was early summer and the weather stayed fair as they travelled
northwards. Æthelflaed was withdrawn and reserved for the most part.
Hereward had imagined that she would be nervous, unsure of what to expect.
She was, after all, only just sixteen. But Æthelflaed showed no outward
signs of nerves. What Hereward could not see was the anger blazing deep
within her soul. He tried to make light conversation, riding beside the
wagon in which she rode, but she answered him with monosyllables, refusing
further dialogue.

They made slow progress, stopping each night in a town or larger village
and lodging with the local nobles. Æthelflaed was always gracious and
polite to her hosts but always made some excuse to withdraw early, leaving
Hereward to explain her absences as due to the fatigue of travel. So it
was they came to the King's camp at Tamoworthig and it was with something
like relief that Hereward was able to turn his charge over to Æthelred's

He tried once more to talk to her before he left but she rebuffed him
gently. "My father sent me here to be his pawn," she said. "This, I shall
never be. I was a Princess of Wessex, now I shall be a Queen of Mercia.
Hereward, you have always been a good friend but you are my father's man,
for good or ill. Tell him, then, that I shall do my duty." Hereward bowed
and made his farewells. It was a sadly puzzled man that rode away.

Æthelflaed had been raised in the Court of a King at war. For as long
as she could remember, her father and his House Ceorls had been on the
move, fighting or planning for the next fight. In the absence of the men,
she had enjoyed, perhaps, a greater freedom than that which was normally
afforded to a Saxon noble's daughter. Her mother was devout and spent much
time closeted with her priest. Æthelflaed had been left to her own devices
and she had taken the opportunity to acquire an education normally the
preserve of male offspring. She had insinuated herself into the Abbey
schoolroom and proved an apt pupil.

King Ælfred had attracted men of learning from all over Christian Europe
and, while at first they may have found her a curiosity, they came to
recognise that she was the possessor of a fine inquiring mind. She took
full advantage of what was on offer. She soon mastered both Latin and
Greek and read every precious book she laid hands on. Attempts to confine
her to religious tracts were countered with a fierce determination. The
teacher-monks soon realised that here was spirit as dauntless as that of
Ælfred himself.

It could be said that the young Æthelflaed became too used to having her
own way. Had she been of a different character, she may have well have
become an unbearable little prig. As it was, that fate was reserved for
her brother Edward, the King's heir. Edward was barely more than a year
her junior and ever conscious of his position. Æthelflaed was by far his
intellectual superior and he constantly found cause for personal affront
when she bested him in any task set by their tutors. It was only in the
matter of physical challenges that Edward could crow his superiority; but
even here, Æthelflaed contrived to beat him.

The pair had been set the problem of raising a number of stone blocks
set in the Abbey cloister. The object was to lift the lumps of masonry
from the ground to the level of the parapet on the curtain wall. Edward,
of course, tried by main force to lift the heavy stones. Strong as he was
for a lad of only twelve summers, the weight proved too much. Æthelflaed
recognised instantly that she would fare no better. Instead, she
constructed a kind of crude seesaw. She attached a stone block to one arm
and a large leather bucket to the other. Mounting a ladder, she proceeded
to fill the bucket with water. After several trips, the weight of the
water in the bucket was greater than the stone block and it swung upwards
to the desired location.

The monks were delighted and heaped praise on her ingenuity; this damned
Edward by comparison. Having been mastered in the one area where he felt
himself to be his sister's better, the young Prince flew into a rage and
struck his sister, knocking her to the ground. Punishment was swift and
harsh and ever after, relations between the two royal siblings were
scarcely cordial.

Now Æthelflaed found herself facing a challenge for which she felt
totally unprepared. It is true that she expected marriage but had always
imagined it would be to a younger man than Æthelred of Mercia. She somehow
envisaged herself marrying for love, having the time to indulge her passion
for learning and, at some point, having children on whom she could dote.
Instead, she was in a strange land surrounded by an embittered people who
saw her native Wessex as almost as great a threat as the hated Danes. Her
husband-to-be was dull, unimaginative and, by her lights, crude.

This was unfair to Æthelred. True, he lacked any great spark of
personality but he was a brave warrior and was utterly committed to the
cause of his land and people. There were few in England who could stand
close comparison with Ælfred, the scholar-King. Æthelflaed's horror was
complete when she discovered there were only three books in the whole of
Æthelred's establishment and that the monks of the Abbey at Tamoworthig
were ill educated, aside from matters religious. There was no formal
schooling and many of the Household could neither read nor write. Had she
been more disposed towards the King of Mercia, she would have admitted that
such was the situation in Wessex scarcely a generation before. The
difference, of course, was Ælfred.

They were married on the First day of July; the Bishop of Liccidfeld
conducted the nuptials and if the rejoicing was somewhat muted, there were
many who viewed the marriage as a shrewd move by Æthelred to strengthen his
ties with Wessex. For Æthelflaed, the reluctant bride, the wedding
ceremony was like the slamming of a gaol door, leaving her imprisoned, her
hopes and aspirations stranded on the other side of the bars.

The wedding feast and subsequent bedding - where the newly married couple were escorted to the bedchamber, accompanied by much bawdy advice
and exhortation - proved an even greater trial. Æthelred had consumed a
great quantity of old ale and he hid his own nervousness in a brusque and
clumsy mounting that put Æthelflaed in mind of a rutting boar. She watched
him in silence as he heaved and sweated above her. The pain was bearable;
the humiliation was not. She felt only relief when he stiffened, grunted
and collapsed beside her to start snoring almost immediately.

This set a pattern for their married life. It seemed that Æthelred
could not come to her sober. She would lie unmoving, enduring. His visits
became less and less frequent as the months went by and Æthelflaed found no
cause for regret in this. At first, she hoped that pregnancy would give
her the excuse to curtail their trysts. In the event, she remained
singularly barren and Æthelred seemed to lose all but the most passing
interest in her. Æthelflaed decided she could tolerate his intrusions. A
bigger enemy by far was her own boredom.

She could not spend her days happily in spinning or weaving. She did
not have her mother's devout nature to pass her time in the company of
priests in contemplation of the Almighty. After six or so months of
enforced idleness, she determined to take matters into her own hands.
Æthelflaed decided to start a school. First, she wrote to Asser, her
father's friend and adviser, to beg the services of an educated monk to
help with the endeavour. Next, she approached her husband, Æthelred.

"My Lord, I wish to found a school for the education of the children of
your Household. I cannot spend another day in dreary idleness."

"You take no pleasure in the company of the ladies?"

"Sadly, no, My Lord. I was not raised to enjoy those pursuits that are
deemed suitable for a lady."

"So what would you do?"

"First, I will have a school. The children will need more than skill at

"The shield wall is school enough. That's where I got my education."

"And do you suppose, My Lord, that you are the first warrior to fight a
battle? men have been fighting for thousands of years. The Romans
conquered half the world and Great Alexander the other half. Could you not
learn from them?"

"Did your father?"

"Indeed he did, My Lord. The moving shield wall is a Roman tactic, as
is the founding of the Burghs. The Romans, too, built fortified places as
the anchors for their armies."

"Men rot when locked behind walls. Victory can only be had in true

"And you think so? It was not victory in battle that sees your kingdom
now divided. I understand your thinking, Lord, but things must change if
we are to win back Mercia."

"We, Lady? And which 'we' do you mean? We, the Mercians or the 'we' of

"My Lord, we seem to have begun badly. Now I give you my most solemn
oath, I am Queen of Mercia, no longer Ælfred's daughter. And if I would
not have chosen to be your wife, that is what I am. I don't yet know how
to be a Queen but I shall learn."

"It is my regret, Lady, that I don't yet know how to be a husband.
Perhaps we could teach each other?"

And over the next few years they tried to do so.

The first eight years of Æthelflaed's marriage to Æthelred of Mercia
were relatively peaceful for the surviving Saxon Kingdoms. Relations with
the Danelaw had settled into wary co-existence and a fledgling trade had
begun between the Saxon Kingdoms and the Danes. In Wessex, Ælfred had used
the time to further establish his Burghs - fortified towns that could act
as centres of operations - and to build a fleet of ships to meet marauders
at sea. Æthelflaed urged similar preparations in Mercia but her husband
was stubborn. He clung to the view that victory could only be won in the
open field. Unable to change her husband's mind, she threw herself into
the education of her new subjects - an enthusiasm that was not universally
shared. Little by little she won them over and one school became four and
then eight. If Æthelflaed did not find happiness, she found a kind of
contentment. Still and all, something nagged at her; something was
missing, unfulfilled.

Now it happened that in the Year of our Lord 892, a vast new horde
descended on England. Ælfred obtained agreement that the Danelaw would
remain neutral, but it was not to be. The fighting was bitter that year
but no victory could be gained and winter saw the invaders camped in the
land of the East Saxons. With the spring, the Danish army broke out and
took the Saxons by surprise. They marched day and night and occupied the
ancient city of Legaceaster, Chester of the Legions, once a great Roman
camp. It was from here that they planned to invade Mercia; unprepared
Mercia whose King was sorely sick and could not take the field.

In Tamoworthig, Æthelred wandered in and out of consciousness, barely
clinging to life. The King was unaware of the danger that threatened and
the Court seemed paralysed, powerless to act in his absence. Æthelflaed
called the Thegns of Mercia to her. She knew what must be done but was
unsure if the army would follow a woman.

"My Lord, the King is too sick to lead us but he has given me his
orders," she lied. Gather your House Ceorls and summon the Fyrd. We march
on Legaceaster."

"Who will command, Lady?"

"Yes, My Lady, who will lead us?"

"I will command. I have my husband's orders and his writ." She
brandished a parchment, knowing full well that none there before her could
read it. To her surprise, there was no dissent. The King had commanded
and their oaths demanded obedience. If she felt any sense of nervousness
at the prospect of commanding an army at war, it did not show in her
demeanour. She stood proudly, simply dressed in a woollen robe of russet
brown, unadorned by any jewels or fripperies. Yet she looked every inch a
Queen. There was a fire in those green eyes that could not be quenched and
a steely determination in the jut of her jaw and the straightness of her
back. The Thegns saw and noted all; and were pleased by what they saw.
Here was a Queen indeed.

As she told her husband long afterwards, she had no plan when the army
marched from Tamoworthig. She simply knew that such a host could not be
allowed to stand on Mercia's northern border. The land thereabouts was
rich and good for farming. Abundant water made for thick, green grass and
fat cattle. Left alone, the Danes could sustain themselves in plenty,
raiding into Mercia at their will.

Æthelflaed knew that the old Roman enclosure was easily fortified.
Also, there was in her an abhorrence for the slaughter of the shield wall.
She had read widely and included many military tracts amongst her readings.
She was particularly fond of Xenephon, the Greek farmer-strategist, and it
was to his teachings that she turned now. She called the Thegns to her.

"My Lord believes that we are in for a long, hard campaign against these
new invaders. It is therefore his wish that we husband our forces. Send
out parties to drive off all the cattle and burn all the crops for twenty
miles around. We cannot deny them water as they sit astride the river, but
we can deny them food." Æthelflaed looked about her, judging the effect of
her words. She saw some frown but also some solemn nods from the older men who saw the wisdom in her strategy. There was a general rumble of assent
and her orders were soon put into action. The Mercian army then sat down
and began the long business of the siege.

Æthelflaed had to work hard over the ensuing weeks to keep discipline
among her frustrated soldiers. They were not used to such protracted
campaigning. The clash and madness of battle, they thought, was preferable
to sitting outside the fortified camp. There were fights and general bad
temper but matters came to a head when two House Ceorls were accused of
rape. Æthelflaed acted swiftly and decisively, imposing a fine equal to
twice a peasant's wergild and insisting that the guilty men were dismissed
from their lord's service - declared ni-things. Short of putting them to
death, there was no harsher punishment for Saxons do not put free men in
chains or prisons.

Word of Æthelflaed's justice spread throughout the army and was
generally approved. The soldiers had long referred to her as the
'Princess' but now a new name came into currency. She was referred to
simply as 'The Lady,' a subtle change, perhaps, but a significant one. The
'Princess' referred to her origins in Wessex, 'The Lady' called to mind
only her standing in Mercia. As the army saw her going about the place
daily, giving orders, dispensing justice, making a hundred and more
decisions upon which their well-being and safety depended, the ingrained
respect due to her position gradually changed. Respect became admiration
and, eventually, admiration turned to love.

After a time, the Danes, denied sustenance, attempted to resolve matters
by a pitched battle. Æthelflaed would have none of it and drew them out
into the devastated countryside. She eschewed a major engagement and, by
means of a forced night march, slipped her army behind them to seize the
lightly-held encampment. The invaders were faced with a stark choice: raid
further into Mercia with an army at their rear or withdraw. They chose the
latter course and slipped away to ravage the Welsh, where they remained for
over a year.

The Lady returned to Tamoworthig in triumph. She had seen off a Danish
army, suffered few casualties and had captured the baggage and booty left
in the camp in Legaceaster. Æthelred was there to greet his wife on her

"You have done well, My Lady."

"It was done in your name, My Lord."

"This, too, I have heard. You will have to remind me how I appointed
you to command. It would appear that I was granted a wisdom not usually
given to those in a fever!"

"As you say, My Lord."

"My health is not good, Lady. Can you command a while longer?"

"If my husband wishes."

And thus it was that Æthelflaed came to be the commander of all the
forces of Mercia.

The following year, an event occurred in Wessex that was to have a
profound influence on the rest of Æthelflaed's life. A child was born to a
Mercian woman. The father was Edward, Æthelflaed's brother and heir to the
throne of Ælfred. Now some say that the child was the result of a rape and
others that the mother was Edward's mistress. If it were rape then it was
well concealed and reconciled. If the woman were Edward's mistress, she
did not long survive the birth to enjoy her position. The boy was named
Athelstan, which means 'Noble Gem' in the Saxon tongue, and such he
promises to be.

As Athelstan grew, he became a constant delight to his grandfather, the
King. The boy, for his part, sought out Ælfred's company and he grew to be
a serious, dutiful, well-mannered little lad. He shared Ælfred's joy of
learning. Some say Ælfred named Athelstan his one true heir and if it is
so, it is small wonder that this angered Edward and his wife, who now had
sons of their own.

Thus it was that the Year of Our Lord Eight hundred and Ninety Nine saw
great changes in the lands of Wessex and Mercia. First, an attempt was
made to blind the five year old Athelstan. The perpetrators of this horror
were caught and killed but would reveal nothing of their purpose. Ælfred
was ailing but still the undisputed Lord of his Land. He summoned the
young boy and presented him with a jewelled belt and Seax, the Saxon Sword
from which the people derived their name. He then commanded that Prince
Athelstan was to be sent to Mercia, to the care of Æthelflaed and Æthelred.
As it was said, so it was done.

In Mercia, Æthelflaed had conceived at last and gave birth to a daughter whom she named Ælfwynn. The child was frail and, for a while, was not
thought likely to live. Thus it as that the young Athelstan arrived at his
Aunt's Court in sombre circumstances. Matters turned darker yet when
Ælfred died in October of that year. Æthelflaed had never been reconciled
with her father and now she was consumed by guilt as well as anxiety for
her own child. It says much for the character of the boy Athelstan that
his presence was not instantly resented. On the contrary, he formed an
almost instant and lasting bond with the Lady of Mercia.

Slowly, the infant Ælfwynn grew stronger and Æthelflaed was able to
relax. She now devoted her time between the care of her baby daughter and
the education of Athelstan, her Ward and nephew. Athelstan had never
experienced that tender love that a mother offers a child so he did not
notice this lack in Æthelflaed. The Lady was not given to great displays
of affection towards anyone. It was as if her early experiences of
intimacy had burned such passions from her. Still and all, she was not a
cold person and her lively intelligence engaged the young Prince in the
same manner and degree as he had enjoyed with his grandfather, Ælfred.

Æthelflaed now made it her personal duty to ensure that Athelstan was
educated in such a manner as would fit him to be a King. It was she who
taught him the martial skills that she had so assiduously developed, she
who oversaw his training at arms and she who set the pattern of his studies
in the Abbey school at Tamoworthig.

In Wessex, Æthelflaed's brother Edward had succeeded to the throne but
his succession did not go unchallenged. Another prince of the House of
Wessex, one Æthelwold, rose in rebellion and sought the help of the Danes
in furthering his cause. Æthelflaed rallied to her brother's cause and the
Men of Mercia joined with those of Wessex to oppose the usurper. The
revolt failed and Æthelwold was killed in battle but there was to be a
strange consequence. In the peacemaking that followed, the Danes gave
hostages to both Edward and Æthelflaed and among these hostages was
Jorilde, the daughter of a Danish Jarl.

Jorilde was the physical opposite of Æthelflaed and possessed a grace
and beauty that Æthelflaed did not. She was tall where the Lady was short,
fair to Æthelflaed's dark and arrow slim where the Saxon Princess, now aged
thirty-eight, was inclined to be stocky. She was also some twenty years
Æthelflaed's junior so it is perhaps surprising that the two women came to
be such intimate friends.

Æthelflaed was horrified at first to find that Jorilde had been given no
education beyond those pursuits deemed suitable for a woman. She could
spin, weave and embroider. She could sing and dance - pastimes that had
eluded Æthelflaed. She could neither read nor write and expressed no
interest in learning either. Inevitably, Jorilde attracted much admiration
from the young men at the Mercian Court but she turned aside their
attentions with a gentle smile, or a waspish tongue if they proved too
persistent. After a while, Æthelflaed gave up on her attempts to interest
the younger woman in bookish learning. Jorilde dismissed such matters as
being the preserve of 'half-men' as she dubbed the priests.

Their relationship grew around their shared love of the young Prince
Athelstan, who, for his part, was fascinated by his first encounter with
'the enemy.' Athelstan insisted that Jorilde speak only Danish in his
company and he rapidly improved his mastery of that tongue. He would have
Jorilde tell him stories from the heroic sagas and he was full of questions
about the customs and beliefs of the Danes. If she were not busy with her
other duties, Æthelflaed would sit with the pair as they discussed the
finer points of some story or explored the nature of the Danish pagan Gods.

One summer evening when Athelstan was about ten years old, he asked
Jorilde why she had not married.

"Because I never found a man like you, My Prince!" She laughed as she
said it but Æthelflaed noticed a strange look in Jorilde's eyes as she
spoke. After Athelstan had retired, Æthelflaed returned to the subject.

"So, Jorilde, why is that you haven't taken a husband? It's clear you
could have your pick."

"So I could, Lady. Perhaps that is the problem."

"How so?"

"I cannot bear all the fawning. These declarations of love are nothing
more than lust. They see only my face and body."

"They are men."

Jorilde snorted. "You too, Lady?"

Æthelflaed shrugged. She was not entirely comfortable discussing such
matters but deep down, she felt the need to unburden herself of feelings
she had buried deep.

"Æthelred, my husband, is a good man. We have learned to respect each
other over the years but I don't love him. My father, King Ælfred, ordered
our marriage. It was not of my choosing."

"Such is the lot of women, Lady, be they Saxon or Dane. But I'll have
none of it."

"What choice do you have, Jorilde? Your father will no doubt order your
marriage when you return to your people."

"That is true, Lady, should I return. I think I'd rather stay with you
in Mercia than give myself to some sot who fights well and has stolen his

Æthelflaed smiled. She had grown fond of the younger woman and felt
some empathy, based on her own experiences. Spontaneously, she stretched
out her arm and gently touched Jorilde's cheek. To Æthelflaed's surprise,
Jorilde seized her hand and began to kiss it with a passion. Æthelflaed
sat completely still, too taken aback to react. Jorilde flung herself at
Æthelflaed's feet, resting her golden head in the Lady's lap and hugging
her close. Still Æthelflaed could not move. Jorilde took the Lady's
inactivity as encouragement and eased upwards until she could kiss
Æthelflaed's face, stroking her hair as she did so and whispering
half-heard endearments. Suddenly, she took Æthelflaed's face between her
hands and kissed her on the mouth, first tenderly but then with an
increasing passion.

Æthelflaed's initial surprise was receding. Something else was
stealthily taking its place. She had known little tenderness in her life,
either as child or woman. Jorilde's hands were now busy: stroking,
kneading and arousing little ripples of pleasure. The Lady's mind was full
of frantic confusion but her body played her the traitor. It seemed as if
she watched from a distance as her arms lifted to embrace the Danish woman.
She felt herself drawn up by Jorilde's hands and she rose, like a
sleepwalker, to follow her to the couch.

Æthelflaed found herself held by Jorilde's eyes. It seemed she was
drowning in their blue depths. Her mind was racing on the edge of panic
but her body responded languorously to the younger woman's subtle touch.
She was unaware of the loosening of her robe but felt a sudden shocking
thrill as Jorilde's mouth captured her breast, teasing the large brown
nipple into hardness. It was the like the moment when a stream, swollen by
winter rains, first bursts it bank to flood the watermeadows. The
confusion and panic seemed to ebb away and a pure calm replaced them.

Jorilde was making a low throaty noise as she moved, trailing kisses,
slowly downwards. Æthelflaed stiffened with renewed shock as she felt a
hand gently part her thighs and insinuate itself into the tangle of her
maidenhair. She was aware of Jorilde's eyes upon her and looked down once
again into the seemingly bottomless depths. She sensed a wave of love
emanating from Jorilde whose face seemed filled with the deepest joy that
Æthelflaed had ever seen. Jorilde held Æthelflaed's gaze as she leaned
forward to trail kisses across the Lady's thighs.

Æthelflaed gasped out loud as Jorilde's tongue sought out the sweetness
at her core. Then all was rising madness and passion as Æthelflaed twisted
and moaned in the grip of sensations that she had never dreamed possible
and had certainly never experienced. She felt herself lifted out of her
body, spiralling and soaring on successive waves of ecstasy until she
thought her heart would burst and she could stand no more. The climax hit
her like a thunderbolt and she screamed aloud. Her consciousness fled and
she collapsed, limp as a rag, beneath her triumphant lover.

For the next few months Æthelflaed's mind was a whirl of conflicting
emotions. Her body knew a bliss she had never imagined but her thoughts
also turned to sin. Although she did not share her mother's piety - the
latter had founded the convent at Wintanceaster on Ælfred's death and
immured herself therein - she had still absorbed the Church's teachings on
the frailty of women. While Æthelflaed's heart could not believe that
pleasure born of love was sinful, her upbringing told her otherwise and she
found herself increasingly riven by doubts. She had learned with Jorilde
to give as well as receive and their lovemaking took her to places whose
existence were entirely unknown to Æthelred or, she suspected, any other
man. Yet still she felt uneasy in her soul.

Matters came to a head around the time of her daughter's sixth birthday.
Jorilde, who had always pretended an ignorance of any form of reading or
writing, was discovered with communications from her father, the Jarl.
More damning yet was the half finished letter in another hand, detailing
the dispositions of the Mercian army and the state of relations between
Mercia and Wessex. There could be only one conclusion. Jorilde was a spy.
It just so happened that Æthelred was once more on his sick bed and thus
the matter of justice fell, naturally, to the lady of Mercia.

Æthelflaed was distraught. Caught between her duty and her heart, she
could only plead for time to decide when pressed for a savage retribution
by the Thegns. All knew the penalty was death and that the dying would be
hard. Jorilde was brought before the Moot; her face and body displayed the
signs of her questioning. But the daughter of a Jarl is proud and she
stood in injured dignity, her head held high. Æthelflaed presided in her
husband's stead. One of the elder Thegns spoke the prosecution. The
evidence was clear, the outcome certain. It remained only for the Lady to
pronounce the sentence. It was the boy, Athelstan, who saved Jorilde.
Against all protocol save only he was a prince, Athelstan addressed his
assembled elders.

"And what are we become that we make war on women?" His clear, high
voice echoed in the silence of the Great Hall. "Have we fallen so far? My
Grandfather, Ælfred, did not fight for all his life to see good Saxons
stoop so low. Jorilde is a Dane. She is true to her blood and her
kinfolk. Such faith in a Saxon would be held worthy of praise not
punishment. Do you believe the Danes to be less than our equals in honour?
Are we so afraid of the enemy that we would kill her now for telling what
she could say freely on her return to her father's hall next year? Yes,
she has broken faith with us. But she is a hostage, not a guest. Let us
shave her head to show her shame and send her back to her people rather
than slough ourselves in ignominy."

All the while Jorilde's eyes had not left those of Æthelflaed. The Lady
tried hard to read what she saw there but could not. Had the love she had
seen before been just a sham? Had she been seduced so easily from her duty
to her people and her husband? The blue stare told her nothing. Jorilde's
face retained its haughty composure even when the Moot accepted Athelstan's
proposals with the customary bellow of assent. There was no smile, no sign
of relief from a death averted. She was taken from the Great Hall.
Æthelflaed never spoke to her again.

Later that night, sitting alone in her chambers, Æthelflaed wept. She
wept for lost love: love that had come late into her life and from an
unexpected source but love nonetheless. She became aware of another
presence in the room. It was Athelstan. He gently stroked her hand. She
looked into his serious grey eyes and saw only understanding with no trace
of pity. At length he smiled.

"It was not your fault. You haven't seen much kindness in your life. I
think Jorilde truly loved you but she had her duty too, as we have ours.
Love leads us but Duty drives; I pray to Christ the King that I shall be as
steadfast when my time comes."

Æthelflaed regarded her nephew in silence. How could a ten-year-old boy have garnered so much wisdom? And then she knew. Athelstan, like her, had
been reared always to do his duty, whatever the personal cost. He had seen
little enough love in his young life. She resolved then and there to
remedy the lack.


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