Read The First Lost Tale of Mercia: Golde the Mother Online

Authors: Jayden Woods

Tags: #alfric, #anglo saxon, #dark ages, #eadric streona, #ealdorman, #england, #golde the mother, #historical drama, #historical fiction, #historical romance, #lost tales of mercia, #medieval, #vikings

The First Lost Tale of Mercia: Golde the Mother

BOOK: The First Lost Tale of Mercia: Golde the Mother
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The First Lost Tale of Mercia:

Golde the Mother

Jayden Woods

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2010 Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce


And this year the king
and all his witan decreed that all the ships which were worth
anything should be gathered together at London, in order that they
might try if they could anywhere betrap the army from without. But
Aelfric the ealdorman, one of those in whom the king had most
confidence, directed the army to be warned; and in the night, as
they should on the morrow have joined battle, the selfsame Aelfric
fled from the forces; and then the army escaped.”

--The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year
992

*

WORCESTERSHIRE

993 A.D.

Even the lazy pigs stirred to life when
Alfric and his men came riding over the hills. The hogs rolled and
squealed, bobbing up and down on stubby legs as they ran around in
mass confusion. The dog barked, lifting wiry haunches from the dirt
to point his muzzle and boom his howl of alert. The horizon
undulated as the ealdormen’s cavalry sliced black silhouettes
against the iron gray clouds. Chills raked down Golde’s skin as she
watched, though the breeze brushing her pale hair blew with the
warmth of spring.

“Hunwald?” she called. “Hunwald!”

She heard no response from the swineherd:
only the thunder of Alfric’s men galloping closer. Then, over the
cacophony of thudding hooves, grunting pigs, and barking dogs, she
heard a child yelling.

“Mother!”

She turned just as his little hands struck
her skirt, pulling and tugging. She looked down at his big blue
eyes, unable to be mad at him even though she wished that right
now, he would simply disappear. “Eadric, find Hunwald and tell him
to put up the pigs.”

“I’ll do it myself.”

Golde shook her head helplessly at the
boisterous seven-year-old. Only yesterday, one of the hogs had
flattened him in the mud and nearly crushed his chest. Already, he
seemed to have forgotten the incident. His thick yellow curls
lashed against his face in a visage of defiance. “No,” said his
mother, “you’ll help him, and then you’ll feed the pigs yourself
while Hunwald joins me inside. Can you do that?”

“I suppose.” As if noticing them for the
first time, Eadric stared at the war-horses riding closer. Even in
the fading sunlight, the chainmail and weaponry of the riders
glinted brightly. “What’s this?” The little boy sounded more
exasperated than afraid.


Off
with you!” She kicked his
departing rump with too much force to be playful. Sometimes she
wondered whether she had sheltered the little boy too successfully
from the horrors of the world he lived in. He seemed oblivious to
pain and danger.

All too soon, the riding men reached her,
flinging dirt onto her dress as they reined their horses to a
sudden stop. Despite their intimidating approach, there must have
been only a dozen of them, most of them wounded and weary. Foam
bubbled from their horses’ mouths and salt whitened their flanks.
She squinted disapprovingly as she searched the score of
dismounting men for the one she knew to lead them.

He was not a hard man to find. He had a head
of such thick, golden curls that he could have been a second sun
rising from the east as he pulled off his helm. He wore a blue
mantle, though now it was stained with filth and blood, and a tunic
of crushed diamond twills in flax covered his mail. It was a
garment any outlaw would risk his life to obtain, so Golde thought
he was a fool to wear it. He jangled from the weight of his weapons
and jewelry as he blundered towards her.

“Oh, Golde!” he cried.

Before she could stop him, he fell against
her and wrapped her in an embrace. He probably intended it as an
embrace, at least, but it felt more like he simply threw his weight
against her and expected her to hold him up.

“I’m done for—disgraced—humiliated—finished!”
He clutched her fiercely, his whole frame trembling.

“You’re … pathetic!” She put her hands
against his chest and pushed him back with all her might. He
staggered, sapphire gaze splintered by fury and sorrow. She noted
with some amusement that he had tried to grow a beard, though it
was more of a vague yellow haze over his mouth and chin.

“You—you—you dare touch me like that? You
miserable wench, I am an
ealdorman!

“Not for long, by the sounds of it. And in
any case, I’ve touched you in worse ways than that, Lord
Alfric.”

Even in their wearied and frantic state, some
of the men chuckled. Alfric looked around uncertainly, unable to
smile himself. Behind her own defiant expression, Golde gulped.
Alfric was almost always a nervous wreck, but she had never seen
him so anxious as this.

The skies growled above them, darkening with
a fresh billow of gray clouds.

“Won’t you invite us in?” said Alfric
miserably.

Golde could only shake her head in disbelief
at the man who was a proud ealdorman one moment and a cowering
victim the next. “I have room for you at my table,” she said, “but
not the others. I’m afraid they’ll have to shelter in the
barn.”

“With the pigs?” one man complained.

“Or you can stay outside in the rain, if
you’d like.” Her blue eyes flashed at Alfric. “Follow me.”

The ealdorman nodded to his men. “Go on then,
you spoiled sods—you’ve seen worse!”

And so with great reluctance, Golde led
Alfric, the tentative ealdorman of Mercia, into her humble
home.

*

She lived in a simple shack, certainly no
grander than the average churl’s, but she had never thought of it
as impoverished until Alfric entered and curled his lip with
disgust. She noticed the poor state of the floorboards, dank with
the smell of the salted foods they’d been storing all winter in the
sunken pit below. She realized that the lodge seemed smaller inside
than it looked outside, crowded by three meager cots, a rickety
table, and an ashy brazier. The shutters over the windows squeaked
as the wind battered against them.

With a weary huff, Alfric sank onto a stool
next to the table. “Ale,” he said.

Biting back her anger, she rummaged through
their stores for a canister of ale. They did not have much left,
and saved it for special occasions, but she supposed this occasion
was as special as any. She grabbed a cup made of alder wood to pour
it in, though she was certain he was accustomed to smooth dishes
gilt with precious metals. This frugality, at least, seemed to miss
his attention; blindly he upturned the goblet and drank deeply,
smashing it back down with a sigh.

“Oh Golde,” he said, blue gaze fading into
empty space. “The horrors I’ve seen!”

She withheld her judgment as she went to stir
the pottage over the brazier. “You may tell me of them, if you
wish.”

“They would give you nightmares.”

She gritted her teeth and waited, certain he
would describe them, anyway. Outside, the rain began to fall with a
gentle whisper. The sound of Hunwald’s horn echoed through the
watery curtain, calling the pigs to his side. She hoped little
Eadric would stay in the barn and do as he was told. If Alfric were
to see him …

“My fleet and I were in the River Thames,
next to Lundenburg.” Alfric’s voice was soft, delicate. She paused
mid-stir to listen to hear him over the purring rainfall. “So were
the Danes.” He shuddered.

A soft mist drifted in through the shutters,
lifting bumps along Golde’s skin. She resumed stirring, her ears
alert.

“You should have seen their vessels in the
river. At twilight, the prows of their ships looked like a horde of
demons. There were dragons, and bulls, ravens … their eyes seemed
to pierce the darkness and find me no matter where I hid, peering
out over the black water.”

She wondered if he knew how ridiculous he
sounded. Apparently not. “Were you not put in command of all King
Ethelred’s fleet?” she asked.

He did not respond, his mind too far-gone in
his grisly memories to hear her. Either that, or he was too
unwilling to admit the extent of his failure. “King Ethelred wanted
our fleet to catch them by surprise. He thought we would corner
them in a port and take the advantage. An advantage over the
Vikings!” He cackled. “Foolishness. King Ethelred is a fool, just
as the monks foretold at his coronation.”

“Alfric!” Her heart fluttered. In truth she
agreed with him, but she had never heard a man of his station
insult the king so openly. Of course, this man was Alfric: a man
that the king had already exiled once for treachery, but afterwards
forgiven. Surely enough, Ethelred was a fool.

Her discomfort only seemed to encourage him.
“An idiot,” he snarled, “who would have led us all to our deaths. I
was not going to let it happen, Golde. I knew we would not win over
the Vikings, but I was not going to let myself be a lamb led to the
slaughter.”

She gripped the hot bowl beneath her, her
blood already boiling. “What did you do?”

“I did what I had to do. I escaped.” His
knuckles turned white as he gripped his empty goblet. “More ale,
woman.”

Her hands trembled as she poured more into
his cup. Then the door swung open and Hunwald stepped in, kicking
water from his boots.

He was an older man, weathered and tainted as
if by a permanent layer of filth from the nature of his trade.
Nevertheless he had gentle blue eyes, and his face was unassuming
even as he looked upon their suspicious visitor. He nodded humbly.
“My lord, I am Hunwald, a swineherd,” he said. “What … event …
should I thank … for the honor of your ... presence?” Golde winced
at the swineherd’s awkwardness.

Alfric looked from Hunwald, to Golde, and
back again. “Are you two man and wife?” he asked.

Hunwald opened his mouth to reply, but Golde
interrupted him. “That is none of your concern.”

Alfric stared at her in horror a moment, then
burst into laughter. “God help you, Hunwald! This wench is spoiled
goods. I hope you know that!”

Despite herself, Golde flushed with shame and
embarrassment. Normally, she was not embarrassed by such things.
Long ago, she had surrendered the sanctity of her body to obtain
security for herself in the protection of such men as
Alfric—whatever his protection may be worth. For a long time she
had possessed no wealth nor station: to warm a rich man’s bed at
night was a means of gaining food and shelter. But when she bore
her son Eadric, she nearly died in the process. For this reason she
had stayed from Hunwald’s bed despite all of his kindness, despite
his good heart and selflessness. God knew he deserved any pleasures
her body could give him more than the nobleman sitting on their
stool, yet she had withheld them. That Alfric would bring it up
this way filled her with a sensation more vile than any she had
felt before.

Unable to stop herself, she reached out and
slapped Alfric across the face.

His head hung sideways a moment, suspended as
a red wave spread up his cheek. His mouth remained opened, gaping,
as at last his eyes twisted to look at her. They gleamed like the
points of two blades.

He stood up. She stepped back, but he reached
out and gripped her wrist, tightly enough to leave a bruise.

He had never been a particularly violent man,
preferring to avoid conflict whenever possible. But he sometimes
behaved differently around the few people he perceived as weaker
than himself. Without a doubt, that was how he saw Golde. She
peered up at him, narrowing her own pale eyes, challenging him.

“Why did you come here, Alfric?” she
hissed.

“For food and drink, and anything else I may
want.” His hot fingers tightened on the bones of her forearms, and
she winced.

Despite all she knew of Alfric, there was a
danger in his gaze now that she did not recognize, like a starving
wolf spotting the only lamb in a flock that was weak enough to
catch. Even so, she did not know what he would have done next, and
perhaps never would; for at that moment, Eadric stepped inside.

He stood in the doorway, blond curls long and
dripping, small woolen tunic matted to his skin. He stared up in
shock at the looming figure of the wealthy ealdorman, sparkling
with his diamond-crusted tunic and hanging swordbelt. Even more
fascinating to the little boy, perhaps, was the intensity with
which Alfric stared back at him.

The lord released Golde suddenly. “Who is
this?”

“He, uh … he is Eadric.” Golde rubbed her
sore arms.

“Eadric.” Alfric stepped forward, leather
boots squeaking. He grabbed a wet curl of Eadric’s hair in his
fingertips, so like his own, and twirled it. Then he pulled away.
“Hm.” He jutted up his chin as he turned towards Golde. “Let’s eat,
then.”

“Shut the door, Eadric, for God’s sake,”
cried Golde.

Eadric obeyed, though by now a wet ring of
rainwater lay round the threshold. As he joined everyone at the
table, he grinned. “I fed everyone in the barn,” he said.

BOOK: The First Lost Tale of Mercia: Golde the Mother
2.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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