In The Name Of The Mother
September 689 AD
Cynethryth peered over the prow and gasped at the lashing foam that soaked her frock to leave it clinging tighter – if that were possible – to her swollen belly. The sea air, even on this mild late-summer’s day, left her shivering as it added to the chill of the seawater permeating her linen dress and shift to the skin.
“Daughter, come down here, at once!” The rest of the warrior’s words were lost to the breeze in an incoherent muttering but she caught ‘in your condition’.
Little did she care for any discomfort, so her glance at the coast of her beloved Wiht more than compensated. Nearing her confinement – she was eight months into this pregnancy – Cynethryth had feared her child would not be born on the isle. Indeed, when she had followed her husband to Rome, she thought never to see Wiht again. As their ship approached the inlet to her birthplace at Cerdicsford, her emotions tumbled and whirled like the chopping waves where the tide met the river. She almost tumbled too as she picked her ungainly way to the steadying arms of her father.
The joy of beholding Wiht and the anticipation of reuniting with her dearest friend, Rowena, could not overcome the grief, still raw, of her loss of Caedwalla, whose child kicked mercilessly inside her womb. How cruel a wyrd had taken him from her after so few precious nights together, but at least she would see something of him again in the face of their offspring.
Aelfhere, concerned for them both, took off his cloak and wrapped it around his trembling, headstrong daughter.
“The ship’ll not berth the sooner for all your staring over the bows, my angel.”
He enfolded her in his strong arms and she snuggled against the man who had raised her in childhood. She had wounded him by disobedience over her betrothal, but their past differences, set aside, had brought them closer than ever. She basked in the fact that he had received the message of Christ in Rome, accepted baptism, and, without thinking, called her his angel. Aelfhere’s emotions too, although less intense, were contrasting. His love of Wiht, no less strong than hers, and of Cerdicsford in particular, meant his spirits rose at their approach. But what would greet him? His possessions were now fallen into the hands of Caedwalla’s – the conqueror’s – man Guthred, from what his daughter had told him. Would he have to renew hostilities to wrest back what was his? He glanced down at the bedraggled red-gold hair of his only child and praised – who, the Lord Jesus or Freya? – who had blessed him with a grandchild for his old age. Ashamed at his spiritual ambivalence, he could not meet the adoring gaze of the dark grey eyes full of tenderness that turned up and scanned his face to gauge his sentiments.
“What manner of man is this Guthred?”
“A good man, father, a friend.”
“No friend of mine.”
She pressed closer to him, and the unborn child, as if to reprove him, kicked against his side. Cynethryth groaned and her father held her tighter.
“Yon’s a warrior you’re carrying, dear heart. He nigh on kicked me into the sea!”
“And what if he’s a she, father?”
“In that case, she’ll be as reckless, wilful and winsome as her mother.”
Their laughter, precious in its complicity with the unspoken sense of forgiveness, broke off as the ship nudged against the wooden quay, causing Aelfhere to brace himself, tightening his hold on her.
“Home at last!” But there was an edge of unease in his voice.
He helped Cynethryth over the side of the ship where willing hands, belonging to familiar faces grinning into hers, hoisted her onto the quay.
“Cynethryth!” A woman’s voice rose above the general stridency assailing her ears.
Island life suited her friend, who bore down on her in the full bloom of health. Rowena had always been pretty with her pale hair like burnished copper and almond-shaped eyes of sage green, but Cynethryth had never seen her so comely.
“Look at you!” Rowena rushed to embrace her. “Oh, you poor thing! You’re soaked through. Come with me before you catch your death of cold! There’s a fire in the hall and we’ll get you some dry clothes. How many months is it? You must be due soon!”
Aelfhere smiled at their retreating backs. Had he lost her already?
Not that he had time to fret. In an instant, old acquaintances, bondsmen and friends surrounded him, all revelling in his unexpected return. Standing two hands taller than the tallest and keeping in the background, Guthred studied the reception of the returning lord of this homestead and formulated his own greeting. It was not long before the two men faced each other, aided by the insistence of Alric, a thegn from an outlying farmstead, who guided Aelfhere to come face to face with the new lord.
“So, you are the father of Cynethryth. Lord Aelfhere, is it not?”
Taken aback by the unexpected sincere friendliness of the tone and the title freely given, Aelfhere accepted the proffered hand and clasped it.
“Come! You must be weary and cold. Let us join the womenfolk and drink together.”
This greeting exceeded Aelfhere’s rosiest expectations. His spirits lifted but as he inhaled the familiar air of home and drank in the sights and sounds so much missed, his thoughts went to Baldwulf, Hynsige and Wulflaf, faithful comrades, each perished for love of him – how his heart ached at their absence, but he shrugged off morose thoughts as he stepped into the warmth of his hall.
“Father, wonderful news! Rowena is also with child!”
Aelfhere turned to Guthred and stared into the grinning face.
“It appears we have cause to celebrate. My congratulations!”
Two paces behind them followed Alric and Ewald, delighted to renew their old friendship. Aelfhere heard the thegn say, “I didn’t know whether you’d survived the journey to Rome but we tended your woodland and your house is still in one piece!”
Amid the general festivities, prolonged into the evening when servants produced a splendid meal of shellfish and fresh crab, and much ale and recounting of tales, Guthred spoke in a low voice to Aelfhere.
“Lord, my wife and I have oft spoken about your likely homecoming.”
Aelfhere’s pulse quickened, so this was it! Was it to be war or peace? His eyes roamed over the bulging muscles of the Saxon, younger by many winters than himself. His gaze switched to the two redheaded women so happy and intimate and an icy hand clutched at his heart. Was happiness to be snatched from one or the other?
“I enjoy living here and have the respect of the folk.” Guthred hesitated to gauge the effect of his words, but apart from a slight narrowing of the other’s eyes, nothing. He pressed on, “The truth is, this is your home, these are your lands and your people, but I would not wish to leave the isle.”
“What is to be done?”
Aelfhere was glad nobody was paying attention to their conversation.
This was not quite true because Cynethryth, from the corner of her eye, had noted the unease in her father’s bearing and could see he was fighting to keep his temper under control. She prayed he would not ruin their heart-warming homecoming as she gazed into the sparkling eyes of her friend and tried to keep up her end of their chatter.
“I had thought, Lord, I could swear fealty to you, and in return, you might find me land for a home.”
Aelfhere relaxed and in a spontaneous gesture took the hand of his new thegn. A mighty warrior in his service, what more could he have hoped for?
“The best farms are taken, Guthred. But I have an idea. Cerdicsford is an island within the isle and part of this island has another area as yet unclaimed. There is a headland to the west and it will need tilling but the land is fertile and easily defended. From the tout there is a clear view over the sea. It serves for an early warning of invasion: hence its name Toutland. You will be Thegn of Toutland, what say you? We can ride out to view it on the morrow. When you decide we’ll have the announcement and another feast here. The menfolk will help you build your hall, and for sure, one or two will want to work the land.”
Cynethryth’s anxiety passed as she saw the two men in cordial agreement. How wonderful it was to be home! If only Caedwalla had been here to share it with her. For the thousandth time she cursed the sword slash that had never healed and that had taken him from her. But she swore she would keep his child safe and it would lack for nothing.
October 689 AD
Having been brought up by her father, and in the absence of a mother’s guidance, Cynethryth wasn’t prepared for the agonies of childbirth. A few days before the delivery, the women of the village, when consulted, were of little help, offering vague comments like, “It was hard and tiring but worth it in the end.” They meant well because they didn’t want to scare her but thus they denied Cynethryth the mental preparation to face the ordeal. She knew that women died in childbirth, and so too did many babes, but she was determined this would not be the fate of her child or its mother, not if she had anything to do with it.
She went into labour unready for the pains of contraction and what followed were hours of utter hell. Afterwards all she could recall was the excruciating pain and the conviction that she would die. But as she stared at the wrinkled creature helpless on her breast, the small miracle, she forgot the suffering in a trice. She had a son and she adored him – her tiny princeling.
In the days that followed, Aelfhere reminded her that his grandson was, in fact, an aetheling. In reaction to her idea to name the child after his father, Aelfhere was adamant she must not.
“Caedwalla! Unwise! When he is older it will serve only to remind those in Wessex who mean him ill that he has a claim to the throne. Heed my words, it would be foolish and dangerous.”
“Then, I will call him Aelfhere, after you.” The dark grey eyes softened to tenderness.
“Better not. If they come looking for your child, they will hear of one named after your father.”
Cynethryth folded her arms over her chest and glared, “Oh father, who are they who mean harm to my boy? You frighten me! What am I supposed to call him?”
“The latest news from Wessex isn’t comforting. A youngster called Ine took the throne and, in so doing, bypassed his own father, Coenred. So, you see, there are other claimants and much unrest. While your little fellow is an infant, there’s nothing to fear...but later...”
He left the rest unspoken and gazed anxiously at Cynethryth, whose usually serene countenance contorted into a mask of rage.
“Nobody will ever harm my son!” she cried, “Not whilst there’s breath in my body!”
Tears threatened and Aelfhere, regretting his ill-chosen words, strode to comfort her.
“Of course, nobody will harm him – not with me and Guthred to protect him.”
But Aelfhere knew too much about the struggles for kingship to believe his reassurances.
When Cynethryth spoke to him some days later about christening the boy, Aelfhere made no objection to her choice of name or rather, he bit off his demurral.
Instead, he said, “Aethelheard. It’s a fine name. How did it come to mind?”
“I was chatting with Guthred and he suggested it.”
“I see.” ‘That accounts for it.’ Cynethryth cast him a sharp glance and he added hastily, “Aethelheard is an excellent choice. ‘ ‘Aethel-’ is a royal prefix. I fear it gives the secret away.’
“We must send to Wihtgarsburh for a priest as soon as possible. My little man must be brought into the faith.”
In the small wooden chapel of the farmstead, hastily erected in Aelfhere’s absence by Guthred, over the crude stone font, little Aethelheard gurgled contentedly in the priest’s arms. The babe didn’t react to the cold water splashed over his head so those present regarded the christening as auspicious.
The seasons passed on Wiht with plenty both on the farmsteads and for the fishermen. While unrest and political turbulence scarred the lives of the mainlanders, Wiht basked in the peace its geographic position afforded its people. It was of little import that Wihtred overthrew the King of Kent and invaded the land of the treacherous East Saxons or even that King Ine installed his kinsman Nothelm as King of the South Saxons, thus making him the overlord of Wiht. Cynethryth, more concerned with tending the grazed knees of her energetic five-year-old son, who was forever getting into scrapes, only sat up and took notice of major events when King Ine attacked Kent and extorted 30,000 pence in recompense for the murder of her husband’s brother, Mul.
News of this episode and other Wessex matters brought Guthred to Cerdicsford to seek discussions with Cynethryth and Aelfhere.
“I have received a message from friends in Wessex,” his blue eyes narrowed as he frowned, “Coenred died two moons ago.”
“Who?” Aelfhere knew little of the Wessex royalty and, if he were honest, preferred to keep matters that way.
Cynethryth enlightened her father.
“Coenred was Caedwalla’s cousin as well as father of King Ine who now rules Wessex.”
“What concern is this of ours?”
“Well, it is.” Guthred said, “Or more to the point, of Aethelheard.”
“What has the boy to do with anything?”
“My friend Caedwalla, the boy’s father, is a direct descendent of the true bloodline of Wessex.” He recited, “Caedwalla, son of Cenberht, son of Cenna...and so it goes on, direct back to Cerdric, the founder of the dynasty. Aethelheard has a better claim to kingship than Ine and that ruler is becoming ever more the tyrant: he thirsts for greater power.”
“But Aethelheard has only five winters behind him.”
“I know that, Lord Aelfhere. But do you not see? The death of Coenred is a grave blow to the future hopes of the boy. There remains but one cousin of Caedwalla Cuthred, the son of the late King Cwichelm, who might be willing to sustain the cause of Aethelheard.”
“The claim to be rightful ruler of Wessex.”