An excerpt from

The Prize

Peter Wiltshire

Chapter 1
A Westerly Heading

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.

 

 

Chapter 2
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.

Before her lay the yard she had trod a thousand times, and beyond that was the fence she had leaned upon a thousand times. But she could see no further into it than a man’s length. All manner of weirdnesses lurked in the greyness, they said.

Her tutor, Father Odna, often held Saint Seaxburh before her as the exemplar to which she should aspire, saying that long ago she, being a woman with the ability to read the Gospels, had persuaded her husband, the King of Kent, to end the killing of unwanted babes in his pagan kingdom. She loved Father Odna, but he was not a clever man, though her parents thought his skill with Greek and Latin proved him to be so; many times she had had to correct his misreading. Would Saint Seaxburh, she wondered, have shrunk from a little cloudiness in her father’s yard?

Casting her prudence aside, she heaved Hog from her feet and stepped down into the fog. She would not follow the path; she would step across the wet leaves. She would then be unguided by her footmarks if she were to try to flee back. She would venture into the world as would have Saint Seaxburh.

The young guard knew not where to turn; he dared not leave the door and she ignored his whimpering entreaties. Hog followed to the limit of his tether and then stood straining and confused, unknowing why he might not follow her.

She found it difficult to stop counting the steps and tried to prevent herself doing so by reciting the words of a little song, but then found she could do both at once. And so she resorted to reciting Bede’s list of grammatical forms, which she had often used to cure sleeplessness. Thus it was that within a few moments, she found herself in a world she did not know.

The fear hit her as a thunderclap. She opened her mouth to call, and clapped her hand over her lips. She must not give in. She must find the gate. She listened hard, but the fog had dampened all sounds. She looked upward, for sometimes she could see the sky through a ground fog, but the light was fading; the hour was late. She looked down, but there were only leaves. She looked behind … and there! A black shape flitted away from her in the corner of left her eye. She swung her head and there it was again. Then it was gone. Did elves and dwarves move that quickly? All the hairs on her head were stiff with fright. The beast’s spittle drooled down the back of her neck. She gripped her hands tightly behind it, to hinder the teeth that were surely to bury into her at any moment. She remembered her crucifix and clutched at it, near wrenching the cord from her neck. She held it straight before her and whispered the Pater Noster.

To whisper the prayer was to be ashamed, Father Odna had said. And she was ashamed of her foolish and of her vain call to the Almighty. She prayed again, this time for forgiveness. In doing so, she dropped her head and the offending loose lock of hair fell full across her left eye. Saint Seaxburh smiled.

Looking downward as she was, Wynflæd noticed the fall of the ground. It was not level: she had been walking up a slope. Yet the yard fell downward toward the gate. It was like a riddle, and with the trick discovered, the fog cleared in her mind, and she went onward with bold strides, in a short while to hear a man’s voice. ‘Is that you, Col?’ she called. Her voice a little more feeble than that she had intended.

‘Aye, it is, Lady Wynflæd,’ said the guard-thegn. ‘Are you alone?’

‘I … I became lost.’

There was a silence. She could tell Col was not deceived. He knew her wilful spirit too well. ‘I ask you not to come forward,’ he said. ‘Stand still and do not move. I say again, do not come forward. I will send Jan to find you and take you back.’ His words were followed by the blow of a horse, and some strange words. There was someone strange with him.

Of all the many attributes of young Wynflæd, obedience to commands given by underlings was not one of them. Emboldened by her victory over the fog, she continued forward. From the dark shadows she soon determined the shape of Col and his man Jan, and ignored them. She was far more intrigued by the taller shape that stood a little deeper in the fog. Slowly came the glint of a silver buckle from the greyness, and then more hints of metal and small splashes of bright colours, the squeak of leather, and the clink of metal on metal. There were three of them. She tingled with anticipation; these were Danish soldiers – of which she had heard the women speak. They had come from distant lands and from the sea; they would smell of sea-serpents and ice islands and the spices of Byzantium: things of which she had read and seen in Father Odna’s books. But she had not prepared for the face of the young man, and innocence fled from her.

His lean face had been weathered to a nut-brown and it was wreathed in fair, but sun-bleached hair. It was all tight bound in braided pleats to his head, held in place by a thin band of hide, spotted with colourful beads. His face hair was close-cut and also sun-bleached. He was beautiful. He glanced at her, but did not let his deep-set eyes linger and turned back to Col, speaking in a broad Danish tongue which she could not follow. She was of no consequence to him. She looked down at her plain dun cloak and pulled it close to cover herself, while the Dane let his patterned, fur-edged jacket fall open to vent the heat from his fine bright shirt beneath it.

She stood a while, if only for the reason she had been warned to stay back, and still the sparkling soldier ignored her. How dare this man stand upon her father’s land and not respect her? His companions were also brightly coloured, and armed, with menacing spears, but they looked foolishly fierce in the fog. ‘Are you lost?’ she said loudly, breaking into the conversation.

Col put up his hands to her and whispered urgently, ‘Do not offend him, Lady. He wishes only to find shelter for the night.’

‘Then bring him to the hall,’ said Wynflæd.

‘No!’ said Col. ‘My Lady, you do not understand … he is a Danish reeve … one of those from the army that has recently come to Theotford. Your father …’

The young man’s eyes were on her. She swung her head to meet them. They were not blue, but sea-grey and they shone as silver jewels from the shadows of his sun-browned complexion. ‘My father will receive him as a guest.’

‘No … these are armed men, Lady. You do not understand.’

‘Are you not also armed, Col?’

‘Yes, but, I am not a sea-soldier.’ He came close to her ear. ‘They are dangerous and the Hlaford does not speak their tongue or know their customs.’

Wynflæd was not to be dissuaded, she put her small hand out to that of the reeve and made to bring him along the boardwalk to the hall. His hand was large and calloused and the feel of it thrilled her. But he did not move and drew his hand back, frowning at the guard-thegn. The two men spoke some Danish words and the reeve nodded to his men. The three soldiers and Col then walked towards the hall behind Wynflæd, her muddied cloak hanging on her awkward and thin frame, her damp scarf clumsily gather about her neck and shoulders, her curly mass of red hair held proudly high.

It was Hog who announced their coming, and, at his ferocious barking, Col suggested to Wynflæd that he go ahead and tell the Hlaford to prepare himself. She relented in her determination; he could do this while she subdued the enraged Hog. Col then spoke to the trembling young guard at the door, who seemed unable to comprehend the circumstance and could not decide at which of the approaching Danes he should point his spear.

A silence followed the disappearance of Col into the hall, followed by a small but horrified scream and a great deal of rumbling, seemingly of moving boards and benches. The door opened slightly, and then closed suddenly. It opened again, this time slowly, and the Col appeared. He beckoned Wynflæd and the Danish reeve and his men to enter, indicating that they should leave their spears with the guard, who he swiped around the ear to bring him to his senses.

As Wynflæd followed the Danes, Col whispered, ‘Your father has been taken to his bed. He has fallen with shock … for pity’s sake, Lady, do as your mother bids.’

 

Chapter 3
Brother Odna at  Elmham Minster, October 866

Abbot Wigberht was a short and square shaped man of fifty years. It amused the monks of Elmham Minster that he had to slightly jump to reach the seat of his stool. Upon this he would sit upright and straight, commanding the sea of wood before him, his tonsured head crowned with a circle of wiry white hair. He levelled his eyes from beneath his snowy brows and considered the request of Brother Odna. This he did without haste. It was not unusual for the Abbot to take a full minute before giving voice to his thoughts, and the monk of the scriptorium waited patiently, knowing that the Abbot would not give voice to words unless they were built upon deep and secure foundations.

‘If you meet with the Danish soldiers, they will show you no mercy. Mercy does not exist in their world,’ said the Abbot.

‘And would you say, Brother Abbot, that old Storkin, who is surely a Danish wicing, has not shown us mercy in the furs and skins he has given us each winter time?’

‘He gives nothing for nothing, Brother. Did you not cure his jaw of its rotten teeth?’

‘That small service I provided two years since. Yet he still troubles to bring to us those skins he claims he cannot sell … which we all know this to be a merciful lie.’

The Abbot fell into contemplation once again and Odna, who had learned well the value of silence in his six and twenty years in the monastery, waited. At length the Abbot replied. ‘I do not speak of friendly traders, Brother Odna, I speak of deceitful kings and of their wicked soldiery. Even among those of our own kind, who consider themselves worthy of Christ’s mercy, there are the samesuch differences are there not? Therefore how much less should we expect from those who live by the creeds of the old gods … of greed and deceit?’

‘I respect your warning, Brother Abbot, but our guard-thegn is surely best placed to know of the Danes than ourselves, and he has said that we have heard much less of bands of pirates and thieves since their army arrived after Pentecost. Why, then, if Turgil is correct, should I be more at risk now than when I used to go to Eorðing before they came?’

Abbot Wigberht slid down from his stool and turned to gaze upon the small golden cross that hung upon the otherwise bleak and empty wall of his bower. ‘Because I fear that throughout this warm and pleasant summertime the Dane has smeared himself with friendliness … and our king has been too easily deceived. Surely, Brother, you have seen how he has let the people turn their backs upon Christ … with all the licentiousness and villainy in the wics? The Devil rides free and what Turgil perceives as good order and safety is, I believe, that same air of oppressive calmness that precedes a storm. Remember, our poor soldier has never been further in his life than Ipswic.’

‘But Brother Abbot, if your fears are correct, then surely it is in God’s plan that I should continue to nurture the talents that He has given young Wynflæd, and warn her parents to keep her safe?’

‘When did you say the Danish reeve appeared at Eadwin’s hall?’ asked the Abbot.

‘Two days ago … so said Turgil … the reeve and two of his men had become divided from his troop in the fog of that day. They had been seeking to buy horses.’

‘And did Turgil not tell you of the mis-use of Wife Emma that same night at Chernham?’

‘No ... ,’ said Odna, ‘he said nothing of it … what of that poor lady?’

‘She was never a poor lady, as you well know, Odna. She was always too free with her affections … but she did not deserve to be so treated by the young soldiers. I told Turgil to keep silent … and we should all do the same … to help the nuns rescue her from further condemnation and shame. As I have said to you all many times, this army of pagans is not here to defend the Word of Christ. Perhaps therefore you should go, Brother Odna, and go with my blessing and prayers … to gently warn Hlaford Eadwin and his womenfolk that these soldiers are not our protectors … they are as cunning as wolves.