Read The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling Online

Authors: Jayden Woods

Tags: #aethelfleda, #aetheling, #anglo saxon, #aydith, #dark ages, #ethelred, #free, #historical fiction, #lost tales, #medieval, #mercia, #short story, #vikings

The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling (2 page)

BOOK: The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling
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Aydith,” he said, his
purple cloak still settling about him from his sudden stop, his
fists planting firmly on his hips. Aydith noticed with disgust that
her maids were watching him with huge, batting eyes. He was not
even a particularly good-looking man, for all that Aydtih could
judge. But he was a prince. “What’s this Father tells me about your
behavior?”

She clutched her table for support, staring
at him with a mixture of guilt and pleading. “I am just ... I am
just so confused, brother. Aren’t you?”


I ...” He looked away in
thought, lowering his arms. “I understand that Father will be
marrying—” He looked uncertainly at the maids, then at Hastings.
Aydith thought it foolish he felt inclined to keep it a secret. The
decision had been made; the people would hear of it soon enough.
Perhaps the king wanted to put off telling everyone so that it
would not enrage them, as Aydith thought it should. “He’ll be
taking a new bride,” he said hoarsely. “For the good of the
country.”


Do you really believe
that?”


I ... I ...” Aethelstan
shook his head helplessly. “I trust Father!”

Aydith sighed. Aethelstan was always so
dignified and practical; perhaps he was right. Why couldn’t she
simply accept the king’s decisions like so many other people seemed
to do? She remembered the way Mother used to act submissive and
accepting of all Ethelred’s actions in public, but as soon as she
was alone with Aydith, she would curse and swear and insult her own
husband. Aydith never wanted to be like that, and she wondered how
many other people might be the same way, acting out their lives as
they felt they ought to, yet nearly bursting with anger inside. If
only people would come together and speak their true minds, perhaps
real progress could be made. But would anyone?

She stared at her brother for a long time,
marveling at him. He did not seem to be filled with secrets and
bitterness like so many other people. He simply did what he thought
he was supposed to do. Surely God must love him dearly. And so did
their father.

This thought sparked a new idea in her head.
“Perhaps ...” She swallowed thickly. “Perhaps you could talk to
him. Tell him to reconsider.”


Why? Because you miss your
mother?” He guffawed, and she felt as if her heart melted.
Aethelstan rarely expressed such disdain. “Do you know how childish
you sound?”

Aydith set her mouth in a
firm line, glaring. “It’s not just about Mother. It’s about our
father appearing
weak
.” The word made her blood burn with nervousness. It was a
word her own mother had used to describe Ethelred often, but she
had never dared repeat it until now. Aethelstan blinked with
surprise. “First the Danegald. He took the people’s money and gave
it to the Danes to buy peace; but the Danes only come back for
more. Now this: marrying a Norman! When the only solution is to
keep fighting!”

Suddenly Aydith became all too aware that
she and Aethelstan were not alone. She saw the looks of shock on
the maids’ faces, and the abashed expression of Hastings, who
seemed embarrassed just to hear such things. Meanwhile Aethelstan’s
face turned bright red. He was not the sort to get angry, but even
he had his limits.


What—what I mean is ...”
Aydith drooped in her chair, her voice slurring to something of a
mumble. “What I mean is that these things make him
look
weak. Not that he
is.”

Aethelstan lifted his chin, which seemed to
require a great deal of effort, for his body seemed as stiff as
clay when cooked to the shattering point. Despite this, he managed
to keep his voice at a low, but grating, pitch. “Everyone … please
leave the room.”

Their eyes wide, the maids got up and
scurried out. Aydith was relieved, though she shuddered to think
how they would gossip about the scene they’d already witnessed.
Hastings, however, stood still.


The king commanded me to
watch her, my lord,” he said.

Aethelstan did not seem to care, nor even
notice that Hastings remained, for all of his concentration was
focused on Aydith. When the maids were gone, he stormed up to her
table and grabbed one of the books.


Hey—!” shouted
Aydith.

He pulled it out of her reach. “You’ve been
reading too many of these stories!”


They’re not stories!”
cried Aydith. “They are
history!
They chronicle the past of all Engla-lond, and
even some other parts of the world, Aethelstan!”

But because he had picked up the book, his
eyes found yet something else: the wooden woman. He seized this
next, and Aydith cried out with dismay.


If those are history, then
what is this?” Her brother turned it in his hands, trying to figure
it out for himself. “Is this the Lady Aethelfleda you always talk
about?”

She clutched for it, but he stepped back so
far that she almost stumbled to the floor. “Give it back!” The
pitch of her voice rose nearly to a scream.


I grow weary of hearing
you speak of her,” said Aethelstan. “'Lady of the Mercians.’ Her
story may be history, but it is still ridiculous! The Archbishop
was right: reading has filled your head with nonsense.”

Aydith clutched her face, nails digging into
her cheeks. “He … he said that?”

Aethelstan lowered the figurine somewhat,
taking her sorrow for submission. “Aydith, women should not lead
armies, nor rule in the place of an ealdorman.” He said it so
calmly, so matter-of-factly. “Your nature is to be peaceful and
supportive. It is the role God chose for you. I thought you knew
that?”

She shuddered. “But … she took Derby … and
built burgs … and—”


Her husband was dead,”
said Aethelstan. “That was different. There was no one else to do
it. Do you remember what happened after she died, and Mercia fell
to the spindle side? Her daughter failed to rule, and had to give
it up to her brother, and … oh I forget the rest.” He looked
frustrated. “What does it matter? It’s not even your
concern!”


Please, Aethelstan, I’m …
I’m trying to be good.” She felt cold inside out, and trembled
uncontrollably. “I’m trying to do what’s right. Tell me what to
do.”

He thought about this long and hard. Then
his eyes fixed on the figurine. “First, you have to forget about
her.” He walked towards the brazier.


... What?” Aydith
scrambled to her feet. “What are you doing?”

Without any ceremony, he opened the brazier
and tossed the figurine into the flames. Aydith put her hands over
her mouth to cover her squeal.

Aethelstan stared into the brazier with deep
concentration, the bright orange light glinting in his eyes.
Despite all this, he seemed unsatisfied. He picked up a poker and
jabbed angrily at the embers, little sparks and pieces of burning
ash spraying up in a gruesome fountain.


I will do that, my lord,”
said Hastings.

Aethelstan blinked with surprise, having
forgotten Hastings’s presence. He passed off the poker. “Er, thank
you,” he said.

Hastings took up the job of stoking the fire
with a grim, firmly-set expression. For some reason, Aydith felt
even more betrayed now than when Aethelstan had done it, for she
had thought maybe Hastings understood her mind. But of course, that
was foolish, and in both instances Hastings was only doing his
duty, serving the lord and lady according to their respective
ranks.

She crumpled in on herself, feeling her
tears return. Her eyes had nearly run dry, she thought. Perhaps
that was for the best.

Aethelstan walked up and stood over her. His
voice was soft. “Come now, sister. It’s for your own good.”


I know. Th-thank you,
brother.” She could not bring herself to look at him. “Now … please
leave.”

He remained there a moment, unmoving. She
did not bother to glance at his expression; she did not care. At
last he turned, and she listened to the heavy thuds of his boots as
he walked out, and shut the door softly behind him.

Aydith did not budge for a long while. She
tried to find some peace and quietude within her mind, not thinking
about anything else. She forgot Hastings was even in the room until
she heard him shutting the lid of the brazier, and she shuddered.
She had managed to forget the destruction of her figurine until she
heard that terrible sound.


My lady,” said the hearth
companion softly.


Don’t speak to me,”
snapped Aydith. She wished she could order him to leave, but she
knew she could not. He would follow the king’s will over hers, as
he should.

He walked closer to her, his feet treading
much more quietly than Aethelstan’s, even though he was a bigger
man. She smelled the ash and smoke that must have blown on him from
the fire he encouraged, and it made her sick to her stomach.

She she heard a loud
thunk
, and turned to see
that he had dropped something on the floor. She gasped aloud. It
was blackened with soot, but it did not look very damaged. It was
the Lady Aethelfleda.

She reached to grab it, then dropped it very
quickly, for it was still hot. Even so, she grinned from ear to ear
as she looked up at Hastings. “What ... how ... ?”


It simply would not burn,
my lady.” But his eyes twinkled with mischief as he
smiled.


Oh—oh—oh thank you,
Hastings!” Before she could restrain herself, she got up, opened
her arms wide, and flung herself against the hearth companion. She
hugged him tight, her face smashed against his tunic just beneath
his chest, the musky scent of his wools and sweat and leather
filling her nose.

She realized after a moment how still he
was, and quickly pulled away. This must be very unseemly. She
turned around and felt her cheeks burning with a blush. Surely it
was not normal for a male hearth companion to be alone with a woman
in her chamber, but then again, many of today’s circumstances were
not normal. She was only eleven years old, of course; but if she
remembered correctly, so was the Lady Emma of Normandy, who would
soon be marrying her father. If not eleven, Emma was only a year or
two older. Officially, Aydith was of a marrying age, herself. She
had already begun her monthly cycle.

Feeling a bit shy and confused, she picked
up the wooden figure from the floor—it was cool enough now to
touch—and clutched it close to her. She cleared some of the soot
from the wood, and as she revealed the woman underneath, she felt
as if Aethelfleda looked different to her now than she had
before.


I ... I know little of
history,” said Hastings from the shadows. “Would you tell me about
the Lady Aethelfleda?”

Aydith took a deep breath, her heart
fluttering. It took no effort to tell the story of Aethelfleda; she
did not even have to search her memory. “She was born over a
hundred years ago, the daughter of the great King Alfred,” she
began. “Her husband was named Aethelred, like my father. Their
marriage helped bring the Angles and Saxons of Engla-lond together,
and united the kingdom against the Vikings. But he died. After his
death she ruled in his place, and the people called her the Lady of
Mercia, serving her almost like a queen. She built burgs and walls
all around the cities and boundaries of Mercia. She was a brilliant
strategist. She led armies against the Danes, and took back the
cities of Leicester and Derby. She even fought and recruited the
Welsh. She ruled for almost eight years before she died.”

She looked down at the toy in her hands.
Suddenly, it had gone from being scorching hot to numbingly cold,
and it looked ugly under its mask of black soot.


And then her daughter,
Aelfwynn, tried to rule in her mother’s place. But Aethelstan was
right. She was weak.”

She walked back to the brazier and opened
the lid.


My lady?” Hastings took a
step towards her, then stopped. “What are you doing?”


Aethelstan’s right. I
shouldn’t keep such toys.”

Her hand trembled as she lifted the figurine
over the fire’s glow. She realized the fire was burning even higher
than she had anticipated. How had the figurine not burned before?
Had Hastings removed it from the fire right away? He must have, so
she tried to get mad at him for it, seeking anger to give her
strength. He had deceived his own lord, an aetheling! Perhaps he
was not trustworthy at all.

She felt a twinge of pain in her heart, then
she dropped the figurine into the flames. Before she could change
her mind, she threw down the lid.

She looked at Hastings, and he was scowling.
His normally kind eyes were narrowed, stinging her like alcohol
splashed on an open wound.


Oh,” she cried suddenly.
“I wish you would go away!”

He bowed his head, though his fists were
clenched at his sides. Ethelred had told him not to let Aydith
leave his sight, and he stayed true to this as he backed away, ever
so slowly, moving further and further from the aetheling.
Eventually he was covered with shadows, and stood on the far side
of the room, and such a quiet fell over them that it seemed as if
he truly was gone, after all.

Aydith got up and dragged her feet toward
her bed. So much crying and fussing had exhausted her. She
collapsed on her knees before even climbing onto her soft sheets,
and folded her hands below her forehead. She closed her eyes and
whispered, so softly that she hoped Hastings could not hear
her.

BOOK: The Third Lost Tale of Mercia: Aydith the Aetheling
12.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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