HEN THE WIND blows from the Channel, it carries to us the smell of rotting flesh on Senlac Ridge. For days the Bastard's men have been burying the Norman dead, cursing as they work in the October sun and covering their faces with cloths against the stench.
Many of Harold's men still lie where they fell. Swollen and grotesque, they guard in death that awful piece of ground they could not hold in life. At night, when the Normans have gone back to their camp, the Saxon women creep onto the field of battle to find their men. It is difficult. The battle was daylong and savage; it took much butchery to kill the brave English. Angle and Saxon together, in death they have become the English. Mutilated beyond recognition, they sleep open-eyed on bloodstiff grass, and the keening of their womenfolk is piteous to hear.
We don't speak of that sound. We lie close together on the earth floor of the hut and pull our blankets over our heads, but still that cry comes through. Sometimes I think it will never stop, that I must walk all my days to the music of mourning.
Perhaps tomorrow the invaders will be done with their burying and march on to murder elsewhere. Then it will be safe for us to escape this place. As long as the Bastard and his men are in the area I dare not move or show myself. I can only huddle here with my children like a vixen gone to earth, waiting for the hounds to leave.
I am certain William of Normandy would give much to find me, doubly so with Harold's child in my belly. Surely he must know of it already; his spies are everywhere. There is no safety anywhere anymore. But was there? Ever?
At any rate, if my unborn child is a boy he is Harold's legitimate heir, the Atheling, for his father and I were truly wed in York Minster. The Norman Bastard would not want Harold's heir to live, to avenge his father someday and lay claim to the stolen throne of all England!
But for all William knows I am in safekeeping with my brother's household in Mercia; even all his spies cannot tell him I lie hidden within sight of his camp.
That was not my strategy, but Griffith's. Griffith, my lord and my love, dead these three years, yet I still see with your eyes and think with your thoughts. In Wales you once told me, “The safest place to hide is at your enemy's back.” That is where I am, in a woodcutter's filthy hut with a tiny remnant of the King's household. Here I have much time to think, and to remember.
Remember the long and anxious journey to this place, fleeing through the haunted Andredsweald, knowing that doom lay ahead and yet driven by a compulsion to see it for myself.
Remember the day I knew I carried within my body the child of my loved one's killer.
Remember the awe and splendor of the wedding at York Minster, when I was married to King Harold of England, while his son by the woman he loved watched us in silence.
Remember the day of my Lord Griffith's murder,
when I saw his head lifted dripping from his shoulders and brandished before my unbelieving eyes â¦ No! I will not think of that!
Better to remember the quiet green and silver fens of East Anglia, the dawn light gilding my parent's home, the childhood of Edyth the Saxon. The little girl I once was, who lived in ignorance and dreamed of marrying a prince.
WAS LITTLE more than a child when my father was outlawed for treason. Until that time my life was full of the sweet scent of marshgrass, my brothers' constant quarrels and the clamor of meals by torchlight in the Great Hall. My brothers and I played at hawking; we raced our ponies across that rolling sea of grass called the fens and shouted insults at each other. I always won, for I was the best rider of all the children on my father's lands. No stige-rap was needed for my feet, I could mount just by grabbing the horse's mane and vaulting onto his shaggy back.
Surely Edwin and Morkere must have hated me for besting them at boyish accomplishments, even as they resented me for being my father's obvious favorite. But then I could not imagine being hated; life was good and I was loved.
East Anglia is a beautiful place of far horizons and close-up pools. In summer it is carpeted with gillyflowers and green moss, forget-me-nots and violet and butter-and-eggs. There is a memory in me still, sweet
as the ache of love, of a heron silhouetted against the dawn sky over the marsh.
That was so very long ago. But sometimesâit is only yesterday.
My father was Aelfgar, Earl of East Anglia, controlling the wealthiest and most populous portion of the land, Northfolk and Southfolk, that territory still governed under the Danelaw and able to summon vast numbers of men to follow their thegn. As I grew out of babyhood and began to swell with the ripenings of a woman, Emma, my nurse, tried to impress on me the great importance of my station.
“You will make a rich marriage, little Edyth!” she often assured me. “The Earl's daughter will be a sweet plum for a prince or even greater! You will be chatelaine of a powerful house â¦”
“More powerful than this one?” I asked in wonder.
Emma's eyes crinkled when she laughed, and that always made me laugh too. “You can't begin to imagine!” she said. “There are halls so vast that all of the Earl Aelfgar's landhold could fit inside them!”
That had to be a lie. My father's property was the whole world, except for the western shires and the sea! I always suspected adults lied to children, but that made me certain of it.
“I don't want to be a â¦ a â¦ what you said!” I told her defiantly. “I want to stay right here, with my pony and my dogs, and my parents too, of course. If my father is so powerful, no one can make me leave him if I don't want to!”
There was a touch of sadness in Emma's smile then. “My child, the Earl himself will send you away, and congratulate himself on having done well.”
I had never heard of such betrayal! Furious with Emma, I dashed out of the small chamber I shared with her and straight into my mother's arms. The Lady Alveva always smelled of the spices with which her clothes were stored, and no matter how hectic our household her voice remained gentle and soft.
“Edyth, childie! What's all this?” She raised my hot little face to study it with her sea-colored eyes.
“Emma says I must go, and my father himself will send me away!”
“Oh, now, I cannot believe she said such a thing!” There was a storm brewing on my lady mother's brow that boded no good for Emma.
“She did! She said I would have to learn to be a shatta-something, and live in a house bigger than our hall, and my father would be glad to get rid of me!”
The anger melted from my mother's face, replaced by a sadly tender smile that looked a lot like Emma's. “Ah, that's what this is about. She was discussing the marriage you will make someday, is that it?”
“Yes, but why do I have to do that? I don't want to do that!” I stamped my foot for emphasis, but the shock of the hard floor on my slippered heel hurt me more than it impressed my mother.
“Each person has a certain value, Edyth,” my mother began explaining to me in her most patient voice. “A king is worth thirty thousand thrymsas, which is the penalty owed if he is slain. A ceorl is worth but two hundred and sixty-six thrymsas, which is his value to his thegn as a hard-working freeman. A great earl, like your father, has much value, because he can support his king with men in time of battle, and because he can defend his holdings and all who live on them.”
All of this boring talk of “value” made little sense to me, and I could not see what it had to do with my father's sending me away. But I knew better than to interrupt my lady mother; gentle though she was, she would box my ears and send me back to Emma for a thrashing.
“A woman has value as well,” she continued, “though it is not reckoned in terms of money. A woman is valuable for the children she can produce and the honor she can bring her husband. And the daughter of a noble house is most valuable, for she
brings as her bride-gift the allegiance of her father and all her father's power.”
All this talk of grown-up things was making me uncomfortable, and the wool of my shift began to itch. My mother ignored my squirmings.
“Likewise, when a daughter marries, her father hopes to obtain the support of her new husband's family and power. This is how you will repay your father for your siring and your raising, Edyth. You will marry well, and provide him with some strong and useful ally.”
At last I began to understand what she was saying, but I was not much pleased by it. Where, in all this exchange of value, was there to be anything of value to me?
“Do you mean I shall marry some tiresome stranger, and go to live far away, and everybody will be very happy about it but me?” I asked, outraged.
My lady mother tried to reassure me. “Would you call the Earl Aelfgar tiresome? It was my parents' desire that I be married to him to unite our families, and he has always been a good husband to me. I am well fed and finely sheltered, and wherever I go freemen and socmen do me honor. That is greater happiness than most people ever know, Edyth, and I could wish nothing better for you.”
Obviously my mother thought I should be grateful for this blighting shadow thrown across my life, but I could not share her opinion. Wrapped in my blankets at night, I viewed the prospect of marriage like a sour fruit bit into by mistake. Growing up did not seem to be a very desirable thing.
Yet in time the woman's body took control of the child's head. As the tides of life began to ebb and flow in me, as my breasts formed and a joy like drunkenness seized me betimes, I began to think of men in strange new ways.
The muscles standing taut in the arms of the Earl's page seemed suddenly beautiful, as if I had never seen
them before! The shape of men's limbs in their hose, even the newly husky laugh of my brother Edwin, had an exciting quality about them that both frightened and fascinated me.
“What is happening?” I whispered to myself in the night.
I began to notice that when we had guests at our table, which was frequently for every meal, my lady mother seemed to enjoy herself very much. The men flattered her and offered her choice titbits from their own bowls, and much laughing and winking went on. A delicious kind of by-play took place which my father both noticed and approved, basking in the glow of having a lovely wife. Beauty was legendary in our family; my father's own mother, the Lady Godiva, had set the standard (although the adults spoke of her in whispers when I was near).
The relationship between men and women took on a glamour, a fascination for me, and I began to suspect there were excitements beyond hawking and ponies.
Taking notice of my frequent dreaminess, Emma continued my education. “If you keep your skin fair and don't lose all your teeth, you will bear your prince more children,” she advised me. “Men couple more often with honey than with sour milk.”
“This coupling â¦ Does it hurt?”
“You've seen animals coupled, childie. Does it seem to hurt them, or do they seek it gladly?”
I thought on that. “Both, it seems. The stallion mounts his mares with joy, but the cats wail and scream in the courtyard!”
“The wailing and screaming is part of it, to be sure;'tis some creatures' only way of expressing their feelings. But if the coupling were not a pleasure, all living things would not seek it so eagerly.”
“But the coupling is just to get children, is it not?” I looked closely at her worn old face, trying to penetrate the mysteries that had begun to intrigue me so much.
Emma looked right past me. She seemed to gaze into some world of her own that I could never share. I felt locked out, the way I did sometimes when my parents' eyes met and a silent language passed between them. They were inside a golden circle from which all else was barred.
“For the daughter of a great house the coupling is to get children, yes,” she told me. “But for simple folk like me, it can be done just for the pleasure of the thing. The servant and the ceorl have few enough of life's joys; it is the kindness of God that we can enjoy each other.”
One unfairness piled atop another! Could only the peasantry get any pleasure out of coupling?
“If you are very, very fortunate, childie,” Emma promised me when I complained, “the man who is given you will be young and lusty and give you much happiness in the marriage bed. And many children too, of course!” she added hastily.
My nightworld began to change. I lay on my pallet, eyes squinched tight, and peopled my chamber with young and lusty boys whose eyes looked at me hotly, the way men looked at my lady mother. I had dreams from which I awoke squirming, my flesh all a-tingle, desperate for my nameless prince to come and claim me.
Looking down the table to me one suppertime, my father announced to my mother, “The time has come, Alveva, to put our young filly there on the market. Soon she will be rolling her eyes and twitching her tail, and I shall have to stand a guard outside her chamber!”
I was a little embarrassed by his jesting. I was no mare in heat, and I hated being reminded that I would be bartered like any other piece of property. But that was not to happen, not then. The next messenger who rode into our courtyard was not from a marriage-minded noble.
Spring was quickening the land, turning brown to
green again, and I sat on my little stool in the Great Hall, weaving ropes of greenery together to decorate the Maypole. A thudding of hoofs sounded in the road and was greeted by the customary challenge from the warder at the gate. The answer came with a ring of authority. “We are the King's men!” cried a strong voice, “bearing a message from the Witan for the Earl Aelfgar of East Anglia!”
My father and Edwin went to greet them while my mother hurried to order mead and pastries brought for our guests. It was no hardship for me to set aside my garlanding for a while; the task had become tedious as all tasks do to a child near grown, and visitors excited me. Of late I had been thinking overmuch of strange young men riding up our road. The spring wind was full of promise; any traveler might bring magic with him! I smoothed my hair and gown and stood waiting. Waiting.
At length my lady mother returned from the kitchens and looked around in surprise; it was unlike the Earl to stay in the road with guests. Even the servants looked apprehensive. They moved back into the shadows of the hall, as they were wont to do when the jesting became too rough at table. My mother looked round her at them, then put on her “You are well come here” smile and went to the door, her heavy skirts gathered in her hands and her keys jangling at her waist.
She stood for a long moment just inside the doorway, and as I watched, her smile froze on her face. The men's voices did not reach me, but my mother could understand what was being said, and her very posture began to frighten me.
Unable to wait alone, I crept to her side and stared down the steps into the forecourt. My father and older brother were at the foot of the stairs with the steward and a few of the housecarles. Facing them was a small party of the King's men, still mounted on their sweated horses. The obvious leader of the group was
tall and fair, with the blunt features of a pure Saxon. His clothes were almost excessively fine, intended to awe the commonfolk, and no man so splendid looking had ridden in at our gate in my memory.
It still shames me to realize that I was so impressed by his appearance I forgot everything else; while my world was being destroyed I was gawking at a velvet tunic and a plumed hat. And part of my mind was not even on the man, but on the possibilities of using that gorgeous plume in my own hairdress!
My mother's moan of anguish broke the spell. I turned to her, and the expression on her face was enough to knock the giddy girlishness right out of me. She shoved me aside and ran down the steps to stand with my father, her hand clinging white-knuckled to his arm. Edwin, usually brash and outspoken, stood quite subdued on my father's other side. His eyes were fixed on the face of the man with the plume; they all listened with dreadful attention to the herald's final words.
“Therefore, by order of the Witan for Our Sovereign Edward, in this Year of Our Lord 1055, let it be known to all men that Aelfgar, son of Leofric of Merica, is outlawed from this day, is relieved of his Earldom and must give over immediately to his Sovereign Lord all his holdings and possessions.”