The Winter Meeting
Cantwareburh, the Kingdom of the Kentish,
Winter, 657 A.D.
Ermenilda watched the snow fall. The delicate flakes fluttered down from a darkening sky like apple blossom caught by a gust of wind. An ermine crust covered the garden’s gravel paths and frosted the plants that had not died away over the winter.
Damp, gelid air stung Ermenilda’s throat and her fingers were numb but still she lingered. As always, she was reluctant to leave her refuge. She circuited the path between the high hawthorn hedge, and the frosted sage and rosemary, her boots sinking deep into the snow.
Despite the cold, she had ventured out here to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the king’s hall, which was full of greasy smoke and the reek of stale sweat. Outdoors, the air tasted like freshly drawn cider. Better yet, she did not have to listen to the prattle of women, the booming voices of men, and the squeals of children bored with being cooped up indoors.
Ermenilda loved this secret spot; it was her sanctuary. Her father had told her the Romans had built this garden, and that it had been a crumbling ruin when he had first come to live in Cantwareburh. Since then, his wife had poured her energy into restoring the secluded space. As soon as she could walk, Ermenilda accompanied her mother to the garden, as did her younger sister. Even over the winter, the three women spent most afternoons out here – the garden was a passion they all shared.
At the far end of the garden, Ermenilda paused. There, she admired the snowy branches of her mother’s prized quince tree. As she gazed upon it, a veil of melancholy settled over her.
Soon, I will have to leave this place.
Nervousness fluttered just under her ribs then, replacing the sadness, before giving way to a lingering excitement.
Ermenilda had heard that Eastry Abbey also had a magnificent garden. Once settled there, she would no longer miss this one. She was hoping that her father would let her take her vows at Eastry in the spring. He had been non-committal, whenever she raised the idea, but she had time to convince him yet.
Dusk closed in, but still Ermenilda lingered. It was only when a shadowy figure emerged from the arbor, at the opposite end of the garden, that she realized she had been missed. Cloaked head to foot in fur, her younger sister hurried down the path toward her, her face rigid with purpose.
“I was beginning to think you had frozen to death out here! Come inside, Erme!”
Ermenilda sighed, irritated that her sister had shattered her solitude.
“I’ll come in soon enough,” she replied, waving Eorcengota away.
“You must come now,” her sister insisted, her eyes shining. A mixture of cold and excitement had flushed Eorcengota’s impish face. “We have guests this evening and fæder insists we join them for supper!”
Ermenilda’s irritation grew. She hated it when strangers arrived at her father’s hall; especially if they were ealdormen, for she did not like how some of them leered at her.
“Yes, an exiled prince from Mercia,” Eorcengota enthused, virtually hopping up and down on the spot with eagerness. “He and his men are stabling their horses as we speak. Fæder wants us indoors to greet him!”
A knot of apprehension formed in Ermenilda’s belly. Unlike her silly goose of a sister, she did not like the sound of this visitor. Her father would be delighted of course; they rarely hosted royalty from Britannia’s other kingdoms. The Kingdom of the Kentish often appeared of little importance in the wars, politics and intrigue between the others who ruled.
Ermenilda reluctantly fell into step with Eorcengota, following her out of the garden and through the apple orchard. The trees were naked this time of the year; the bare, spidery branches dark against the swirling snow. Ahead, the outline of the Great Hall loomed. A high, timbered structure with a straw-thatched roof; it sat raised above the surrounding garden, orchard and stables on great oak foundations. The hall cast a long shadow in the gathering dusk.
Shaking snow off her cloak, Ermenilda climbed the wooden steps to the platform before the doors. She nodded to the spearmen guarding the entrance and pushed the heavy oaken door open. Then she entered, with Eorcengota following close at her heels.
Just inside the door, she almost collided with a group of men who were in the process of removing their cloaks and weapons. Ermenilda realized with a jolt that these must be the Mercians. They were dressed for travelling in thick fur cloaks, leather jerkins, woolen tunics and heavy boots. It appeared they had tended to their horses swiftly and entered the hall just ahead of the princesses.
Fæder will be cross.
Ermenilda feigned calm, shrugged off her fur cloak and handed it to a waiting servant, aware that curious male gazes had settled upon her. She did not want to look their way but, against her own will, felt her gaze drawn to one of the men.
He stood near to her, little more than an arm’s length away. The moment their eyes met, her breath rushed out of her – as if she had just tripped.
She had never seen a man so striking, so coldly beautiful. His eyes, ice blue, held her fast. His face was so finely drawn it appeared chiseled, and his long white-blond hair fell over his broad shoulders. He was a big man and she had to raise her chin to meet his gaze. The newcomer was dressed in leather armor and had just finished unbuckling a sword from around his waist, which he handed to a servant.
“Good eve, Milady,” he murmured.
The sound of his voice, low and strong, stirred something in the pit of Ermenilda’s belly, a sensation she had never felt before; an odd kind of excitement mingled with fear.
“Wes þū hāl,” she responded formally, trying to ignore the fact that her breathing had quickened. The man’s gaze remained boldly upon her face then, an arrogant smile curving his lips. Her father’s booming voice saved her from having to converse with him further.
King Eorcenberht of Kent strode across the rush-strewn floor, sending servants scattering in his wake. He was a huge man, both in height and girth, a great fighting man in his youth. A thick beard, the color of hazelwood, covered his face; the same shade as the unruly mane, streaked through with grey that flowed over his broad shoulders. Physically, his daughters – both slender and blonde like their mother – bore no resemblance to Eorcenberht.
“Apologies, Lord Wulfhere,” Eorcenberht called as he approached. “My daughters were supposed to be here to greet you.”
The blond man tore his gaze from Ermenilda and favored the Kentish king with a cool smile.
“And they are, Lord Eorcenberht. I have just been welcomed by one of them.”
Something in the way the man spoke the words made Ermenilda feel flustered, as if she had done something wrong.
“Sorry, fæder,” she murmured before quickly sidestepping the Mercian lord. “I was in the garden and lost track of time.”
“Join your mother,” the king grumbled, “and help pour mead for our guests.”
Glad to be free of the Mercian’s penetrating stare, Ermenilda cast her gaze downwards and hurried away.
As always at this hour, the king’s hall bustled with activity. A handful of servants were finishing preparations for the light evening meal – a supper of griddle bread, pickled onions, salted beef and cheese – as the household ate their largest meal at noon. The servants had put out long tables where the king’s thegns would take their meal, while the king and his kin dined upon the high seat.
Eorcengota caught up with her sister. They made their way toward a long worktable next to the nearest of the two fire pits.
“That must be the Prince Wulfhere of Mercia,” she whispered. “He’s handsome, don’t you think?”
“No,” Ermenilda lied.
They joined their mother, Queen Seaxburh, upon the high table where she was pouring mead into cups.
“Fæder’s guests are here,” Ermenilda announced. She then picked up another clay jug and began helping her mother.
“Yes, so I’ve seen.”
There was no hiding the acerbity in their mother’s voice. Ermenilda saw her glance in the direction of the newcomers and glimpsed a flash of hostility in her mother’s usually serene eyes.
“Mōder, what is it?”
“I have no wish to dine with Penda’s whelp,” the queen replied, her attention returning to her task. “Penda killed my father and brother. I would rather not break bread with his son.”
Ermenilda glanced back at the blond man, who was now making his way across the floor. He appeared to be listening attentively while her father talked to him. She knew that her grandfather – King Annan of the East Angles – and her cousin Jurmin, had both fallen three years earlier in battle against the Mercians. It had taken place in the marshes at Blythburgh, in the borderlands between Mercia and East Anglia. Her mother, who adored her father, had been inconsolable when she learned the news.
Seeing the look on her face now, Ermenilda saw that the grudge her mother bore Mercia ran deep. Not that Ermenilda blamed her. She cast a dark look at Prince Wulfhere and prayed her father send him quickly on his way.
Ermenilda had listened to many a tale about ruthless King Penda around the fire pit at night. The violent pagan, who would stop at nothing to expand his borders, had died in battle against Northumbria two years earlier but that had not stopped the stories about him.
At least fæder will not wed me to a pagan, Ermenilda assured herself as she finished filling the cups. Eorcenberht was a god-fearing man who, just a year earlier, had overseen the destruction of all the pagan idols in Cantwareburh. He also had insisted that the town observe Lent, the period of fasting after Eōstre.
Ermenilda sneaked a glance at the Mercian prince as he stepped up on the high seat. Frankly, despite his good looks and charisma, this man frightened her. He was different to her father, who was loud, bluff and easy to read. The prince appeared a man who said little and thought much – she did not trust such men.
Taking a seat at the table upon the high seat, to the left of her mother, Ermenilda was disconcerted to see that their guest had sat down at her father’s right – the spot usually reserved for his eldest son, Ecgberht. Prince Wulfhere was sitting directly opposite her and she realized there would be no escaping his gaze during the meal.
Servants placed wooden boards, piled high with food, upon the table. Ermenilda watched Prince Wulfhere help himself to a generous serving of bread, cheese and salted pork. The king watched him, smiling.
“I am glad you have come to dine at our table, Lord Wulfhere.”
“And I am thankful for your hospitality,” the Mercian replied. “You welcome an exiled prince into your hall on a cold night. For that, I am grateful.”
Ermenilda stole a glance at her mother then. The queen sat still and silent, hardly touching her food. The joviality on her husband’s face was absent upon Seaxburh’s.
“Not exiled for much longer, if I have anything to do with it,” Eorcenberht replied, raising his cup high into the air.
The prince fixed him with a cool, level gaze.
“So you will help me regain the Mercian throne?”
“Aye, I have no wish to have Northumbrians preying upon my borders. Mercia has always been good to the Kentish people. I will not abandon you now.”
The queen visibly paled at this, her grip on her bronze cup tightening. Ermenilda had never seen her mother so incensed. Yet, the king appeared oblivious to it. Heedless, he continued.
“I will gift you one-hundred Kentish spears – my bravest warriors – to help you retake Tamworth.”
The prince nodded and smiled.
“You are generous, Lord Eorcenberht.”
Ermenilda watched their conversation with a growing sense of unease. She knew that the Northumbrian king, Oswiu, had held control over the Mercian stronghold of Tamworth for the past year. The Northumbrians had controlled southern Mercia ever since the murder of King Paeda, last Eōstre. It dismayed her to hear that her father was now involving himself in matters that did not concern him. If this exiled prince failed to retake the Mercian throne, there would be consequences for Kent.
Still, a woman’s opinion mattered little when it came to politics, so she kept silent. Likewise, the queen held her tongue, although Ermenilda could see it cost her to do so.
The meal progressed and the conversation shifted to other things. The king complained about the bitter winter that lay upon them and then asked the prince about his exile.
“How have you managed to escape capture?” he asked.
“I have been living in the woods of southern Mercia,” Wulfhere replied, “and gathering men loyal to me. Local folk have been only too happy to hide me.”
“My men tell me you arrived here with a white wolf?”
The prince smiled at this; the first truly warm smile that Ermenilda had seen him give.
“Her name is Mōna. I’ve left her in the stables while I’m here. She will trouble no one as long as she is left in peace.”
“So the wolf travels with you?”
“She does. Mōna is my shadow.”
Ermenilda suppressed a shudder; this man was most definitely a pagan. There was something wild, dangerous, about him. As if sensing her reaction, Prince Wulfhere looked at her then. Their gazes met for an instant and Ermenilda saw his naked interest.
Heart pounding, she looked away and stared down at the remains of her supper.
“Your eldest daughter is quite lovely,” Wulfhere commented. “Is she betrothed yet?”
“Not yet,” the king replied. “She wishes to take the veil, but although I would like one of my daughters to serve god, I would prefer my eldest married well.”
Ermenilda glanced up, shocked by her father’s admission. She had been sure he would agree to let her join the nuns at Eastry. Out of the two sisters, she was far more suited to such a life. Eorcengota was too spirited and silly to enjoy life as a nun, whereas Ermenilda craved quiet and solitude.
“Would you consider wedding her to me then?” Wulfhere asked.
Ermenilda watched her father’s face and knew the offer had delighted him. However, he did not reply immediately. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and fingered the elaborately carved armrests while he mulled the request over. She glimpsed a shrewd glint in his eye and realized he was calculating something.
“It depends on two things, Lord Wulfhere,” he replied eventually.
The Mercian put down his cup of mead and returned the Kentish king’s gaze, his expression unreadable.
“And what are they?”
“The first is you must be baptized, renounce the old gods and all traces of them at Tamworth. I cannot wed my daughter to a pagan.”
“And the second?”
“You must win back the Mercian throne before you and Ermenilda can be handfasted. Once you are the King of Mercia, she is yours.”
Ermenilda slowly let out the breath she had been holding. Her father’s conditions had made her relax slightly.
Wulfhere’s father had flatly refused to be baptized and she wagered that his son was cut of the same cloth. Plus, taking back Tamworth from the Northumbrians sounded like a difficult task at best. Perhaps, a life at Eastry was not lost to her after all.
Unfortunately, Wulfhere’s next words shattered her hopes. He glanced first at Ermenilda and smiled, although his eyes were hungry. Then, Wulfhere’s gaze met the king’s once more.
“I accept your conditions,” he replied firmly. “I will accept your god and take Tamworth back for my people… and then...”
His gaze flicked back to Ermenilda and she wilted under the heat of his stare.
“I will come to claim your daughter.”
One year later…
The Kingdom of Mercia, Britannia
Winter, 658 A.D.
The full moon sailed high in a cloudy sky. It drifted in and out of patches of wispy cloud, intermittently illuminating the world below in silver. The rain had cleared, as hoped, although the ground still squelched underfoot.
Wulfhere crept forward, alongside the eastern bank of the River Tame, his wolf at his heels. Mōna moved silently, alert and watchful. Like her namesake, ‘moon’, her white pelt glowed palely in the darkness.
The pair of them were at the head of the group. None of the warriors carried torches, finding their way by the light of the moon. Although his men were trying to move as quietly as possible, the creaking of leather, the hiss of their breathing, and the whisper of their heavy tread seemed to echo through the stillness.
None of them wore helmets or carried shields – not even Wulfhere. For what lay ahead, they needed to be fast and deadly. Wulfhere had drawn his sword, Shield Breaker, ready for the fight.
Wulfhere’s pulse started to accelerate as they approached the low gates.
After two years in exile he was about to take back his birthright. Yet, caution tempered his impatience to enter Tamworth.
Is Aethelred loyal?
His success hinged on his brother keeping his word. Aethelred had promised that when the moon had fully risen, men would open Tamworth’s low gate. He had sent word to assure them that Oswiu’s stewards were ignorant of their plans. Aethelred would be waiting for his brother in the Great Tower, with a group of men loyal to Wulfhere.
Wulfhere was wary. He trusted few men, and his brother was not among them. However, in truth, Aethelred had always been easier to like than Paeda, his elder brother.
Paeda had been a snake. He had betrayed their father on the eve of battle and given away true power over Mercia so that he could marry Oswiu of Bernicia’s daughter, a young woman he had obsessed over.
Wyrd – fate – had turned against Paeda in the end. Rumor had it that Alchflaed, the flame haired beauty Paeda had wed, had slain him while he slept, before fleeing into the wilderness.
Wulfhere pushed aside thoughts of his brothers and focused his attention entirely upon his destination. He could not afford to let himself be distracted now. He would discover soon enough, if Aethelred coveted the throne for himself.
Ahead, he glimpsed a gap between the heavy oaken and iron gates. Wulfhere grinned, relief turning his mood from wary to jubilant. He need not have worried.
Inside, two spearmen awaited them. One of them stepped forward to greet Wulfhere.
“M’lord,” he whispered urgently. “The high gate is also open. We must hurry before someone raises the alarm.”
Wulfhere did not need warning twice. He nodded and motioned to the men behind him that it was safe to enter. Then, on winged feet, like Thunor himself, Wulfhere took off at a sprint up the main way that led to Tamworth’s inner palisade. Mōna ran at his side, as silent as a shadow.
Ahead, the Great Tower of Tamworth shone silver against the pitch black of the night sky. In daylight, the tower was a less prepossessing sight; dirty grey stone encrusted with lichen. A shiver went through Wulfhere as his gaze travelled down it. He was home.
No light shone from the tower’s thin windows. Everyone inside slumbered. Wulfhere smiled once more and increased his speed, his soft-soled hunting boots barely making a sound on the roughly paved street.
As promised, the high gate was also open.
“Ready, Milord?” one of his warriors asked, his voice a low rumble. The man’s name was Elfhere. The tall, blond warrior had left Tamworth after the Northumbrians took control of it, and had sought Wulfhere out in the wilderness. Elfhere limped slightly, from an old injury, but he was still one of Wulfhere’s best. He was glad to have him at his side.
“Aye,” Wulfhere replied, flashing him a fierce grin. “Let’s send these Northumbrians to meet Nithhogg!”
The thought of the great serpent, which resided in the underworld, feasting on the flesh of his enemies, caused a thrill to course through his veins. His blood lust had awakened. No Northumbrian who came within reach of Shield Breaker tonight would be spared.
Once it was done, he would wed Ermenilda.
Even a year later, he could still picture her clearly. He had wanted Ermenilda from the moment he saw her. Young and slender, the Kentish princess’ ethereal beauty had ensnared him. Long, straight blonde hair, a few shades darker than his, flowed over her shoulders, framing a delicately featured face and soulful eyes the color of walnut.
The girl had a demure manner, yet she had held his gaze unflinchingly at the door to her father’s hall. He had seen the way her cheeks flushed when he stared at her, the way her breathing quickened. The image of how she had looked that evening remained with him. Ermenilda had been radiant, her cheeks flushed with cold, with snowflakes in her hair.
She was just one more reason he had to retake Tamworth.
Wulfhere reached up then, his fist closing around the small iron spear he wore on a leather thong around his neck – Tiw, the god of war’s spear. He had not yet renounced the old gods, although the time was coming when he would have to do so. Wulfhere was not sure he would ever truly cast them aside, for the gods of his ancestors meant a lot to him.
Tonight, Tiw would guide his sword and help him regain his birthright.
They stormed the tower in a fury; a tide of angry men surged into the Great Hall. One or two oil-filled clay cressets still burned around the perimeter of the hall, giving them enough light to make out friend from foe. Wulfhere had ordered his men to light the torches inside the doors as soon as he entered.
He wanted to see the look on his enemies’ faces before he killed them.
Aethelred had sent descriptions of the two stewards. They were both powerfully built men, their arms glittering with arm rings. Wada was blond and Alfwald red-haired. Wulfhere’s brother had assured him they would be easy to spot – and Wada now slept high above the rest of the hall upon the King’s Loft.
Wulfhere crossed the hall amidst cries of the men, women and children who had been sleeping upon the rushes. He saw Aethelred emerge from his alcove. His brother was fully dressed and gripped a seax.
Their gazes met and Aethelred grinned. Wulfhere knew that grin well – he had seen it often as a child, when he and his younger brother got up to mischief. He grinned back realizing that his fears for his brother’s loyalty were unfounded. Aethelred would not betray him.
Wulfhere’s men fanned across the hall. Three Mercian ealdormen had joined him: Immin, Eafa and Eadbert. They were powerful, respected men who had brought their own warriors with them. Wulfhere met Immin’s eye as the hulking ealdorman with a mane of grizzled blond hair stepped up beside him.
Immin grinned. “Fire in your belly yet, Milord?”
Wulfhere smiled, showing his teeth. In truth, he was more than ready. He longed to spill Northumbrian blood, to cut down those who had no right occupying his hall or commanding his people.
Some of his men had already engaged the Northumbrians. He spied Elfhere grappling with a warrior near one of the fire pits – but it was Werbode, the captain of Wulfhere’s band, who led the charge. Tall and strong with a shock of black hair and a neatly trimmed beard, the warrior was a fearsome sight. Clad in boiled leather, Werbode howled his rage as he slashed his way across the rush-strewn floor.
Wulfhere turned his attention away from the melee, and strode across the hall toward the ladder to the King’s Loft. Men and women scrambled out of his way. It was not just Wulfhere they were frightened of, but also the huge, white wolf that stalked at his side.
Leaving Mōna to guard the foot of the ladder, Wulfhere sheathed his sword and drew his seax. Then, he clamped the blade between his teeth so that he could scale the ladder quickly.
Wada was scrambling out of the furs when Wulfhere reached the platform. He was naked and a young slave girl, the iron collar around her neck gleaming dully in the flickering torchlight, cowered behind him.
Rage twisted Wada’s bearded face, whereas the slave had gone the color of milk.
“So the upstart pup has returned.” Wada snarled, reaching for his sword that lay beside the furs. Even on the defense, the Northumbrian ealdorman did not show a trace of fear. “Come home for a whipping have you?”
The Taking of Tamworth
Wulfhere held Wada’s gaze. He did not bother to reply to the insult – the steward was just trying to bait him. Instead, he inclined his head slightly and favored the Northumbrian with a cool smile.
Beneath them, the roar of battle shook the Great Tower of Tamworth to its foundations. The platform beneath Wulfhere’s feet vibrated from the force of it. It was as if the gods were raging, and Wulfhere could taste the blood lust in the air.
Wada lunged, but Wulfhere had anticipated him. Two steps took him up against the ealdorman, beyond the reach of his sword, where Wulfhere drove his seax blade up under Wada’s ribs.
Wada inhaled sharply, his breath wheezing as if Wulfhere had punched him the stomach. Then, as the warrior struggled against him, Wulfhere withdrew the dagger and deftly slashed the Northumbrian’s throat open.
The slave-girl screamed as the ealdorman slumped to the fur-covered floor, gurgling and thrashing.
Wulfhere let him fall. Ignoring the blood, which had splattered over him, he cast a glance over at the cowering slave. Tears streaked her thin face.
“Please…” she begged, her voice quaking. “Don’t kill me…”
Wulfhere dismissed her; he was not interested in killing defenseless slave-girls. There were others more worthy of death this night. He turned away and quickly descended the ladder to the main hall.
Mōna was savaging a Northumbrian warrior, who had tried to climb the ladder in an attempt to come to Wada’s assistance. The man’s screams echoed high into the rafters as the wolf pinned him to the ground, her huge jaws ripping at his flesh.
Wulfhere moved around them, leaving Mōna to her task, and stepped down onto the floor.
Men fought with seaxes, boning knives, or their fists. Although it was customary to leave your weapons at the door inside a Great Hall, many of the Northumbrians were armed. Surrounded by Mercians, they wisely carried their swords and seaxes everywhere.
Alfwald, the red-haired ealdorman, slashed at any Mercian who came within reach, the blade of his sword running dark. He strode now, toward Aethelred, who had just used his seax to kill one of the ealdorman’s retainers. Alfwald’s curses rang across the hall.
“Oath-breaking maggot!” he roared. “Come taste my blade!”
Aethelred spat on the floor and stepped forward to meet him.
Then, Alfwald spied Wulfhere and his face twisted with rage. The younger brother forgotten, he turned to Wulfhere.
“Princeling,” he growled. “So you show your face at last.”
Wulfhere sheathed his seax and drew Shield Breaker.
“Aye,” he replied with a chilling smile, “and this face will be the last thing you ever see.”