Before he was to go with Halfdan’s army into Wessex, Guthrum sought the opinion of his wife, for he was much in awe of her ability to read the Latin. He would watch her peer into the mind of the ancients who had written those books, a thing she would do without speaking a word - a magical skill that even her old Angle tutor could not devine. Wynflæd duly warned him of the West Saxon prince named Alfred who, she said, possessed the knowledge of the Romans, and that he would not be overcome by a tiny Danish spear-rush.
Guthrum heeded her words well, and held himself back from the fight at Ashdown, learning much and surviving the slaughter.
But seven years later, the army that he, Guthrum, led contained too many youths who had become possessed of a mad lust for bright and shining things. They were so bewitched they would even fight among themselves for the winning of them. Yet it was those same soldiers who gave Guthrum his strength, because he and his older doughties were weary and too ready to settle – if Alfred would let them. Guthrum was therefore a man riding on the whale’s back, and he could not step onto a dry shore without being swallowed. But when he spoke of these things to Wynflæd, she said that there could be no benefit in overpowering Alfred - if Guthrum could not first release his young soldiers from the curse of the magpie’s eye. Together they must find a way, whatever the price.
The wind opened the sail with a mighty thud. He wondered the cloth was not ripped to shreds. It now bulged taut, straining against the clews, and it dragged the creaking strakes of the ship upward, lifting them high onto a rising wave, and the sea-soldiers whooped with joy at the god’s power, their hearts as swollen as the sail, and their sinews stretched as taught as the tethers to the sail. They were flying across the sea. They were flying.
He pulled back his hood to let the wind cool his head and was dazzled by the sunlight shimmering through the spray. All was fine and keen. All, that was, except his tunic, which was smeared with thick grease: its bright silk threads clogged with a brown filth. He cursed his misfortune. Was that why Rikvith had turned her away? She had stitched it so proudly for him, and with such care. And yet again he had given the sanctimonious Gothi an excuse to console her with his long-fingered hands. He glanced to where she had been, but the shore was too far distant now, and he would not see his mother’s red hood again. But she would hear of his deeds … and her eyes would brighten at the sound of his name … and he would send her gifts … and make her think of him and his father once again ... all together … and she would push away the leech.
Angrily he cast about for a means to scrape the grime away. Seeing a loose rope end, he strained across at full reach to take hold of it. But the ship thundered down into a trough and rolled, and the green sea loomed high above him. He could see sunlight through it. The wave passed, and the ship lifted once more above the dark depths, thrusting its crew upward into the clean air: an air that scoured sadness from his mind. Here he was on the shoulders of his wild father again; his flaxen strands of hair lashing about his head. He revelled in the slackness. He let loose a loud obscenity, bellowing a bawdy song into the face of the leech. Before three words had passed, the whole ship was with him, and before the end of the verse, the ships to left and right also.
The daughter of Hlaford Eadwin, Eorðing Hall 866
In the latter half of October of that year, a light wind came in from the east and carried a chilled edge and this gave rise to the land being shrouded in thick fog. It so clogged the air at Eorðing Hall which nestled deep in woodland, it stifled all sound. The noisy business that would normally ring from the outbuildings was reduced to no more than a few tinklings of harnesses and the occasional blow of a horse. The geese sat silent and wary.
After eating, when the last of the serving women had left the hall, the daughter of Hlaford Eadwin stood just beyond the great door to take in the air – as was her habit. She did not care to be enclosed with the settling stomachs of the older people at this time. She wrapped her cloak tightly about her shoulders and stared into the darkening gloom. Her good friend had gone that day and would come no more. She would write letters to her – if her new Mercian husband would permit it. But she, Wynflæd, would miss her monthly visits terribly. Wynflæd would not be married they said, for she had a great gift and she was behoven, they said, to become an abbess. It was God’s will, they said. She had therefore accepted it, but the thought did not excite her.
The young guard was standing at the side of the doorway. She had often caught him slyly looking at her and his eyes were raking her now. He was a youth of only one or two years more than her own fourteen and she took it into her mind that she did not care to be treated with such disrespect. She flashed a stern glance at him and he dropped his eyes to the boardwalk, renewing his upright stance. She fought to keep her smile within.
The door creaked further open and Hog swayed out from the hall to flop his snub-nosed bulk upon her feet. Thus impeded, she could not, and did not, move, but rather chose to enjoy his warmth. The hound pointed his nose in the same direction as his mistress, though he knew not why he should, and panted out his own contribution to the vapours about them.
Once again, Wynflæd reflected upon her circumstance. She had been clamped in safety all her fourteen years. Her parents and her tutor held so fast to the belief in her gift they would not let her run even the smallest risk. This she could not reconcile, for what good was it to be so learned if she had no real knowledge of the world? Her cousin Osric had been over the sea to Frisia at her age, and now Beorwynne was to be married in Mercia. The world and all its joys and pains were passing her by. She must do something. She must feel the excitements of life.
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