Sondwic, Kent, 894 AD
My passage from boy to manhood, abrupt and hard, bestowed on me many life lessons. Prime among them that happiness should be held at arm’s length in a pair of smithy tongs because, if you try to embrace it, you’ll be seared to the bone.
I was entering my sixteenth summer when father gave me the greatest joy of my life up to that point. Unknown to me, he spied me at sword practice, disarming the brute of a smith’s son, Flodwig. Just because you stand taller than other boys and your chest is as broad as a yearling bull’s doesn’t mean your muscles can beat your opponent like an iron bar. Not when the one you are up against is as swift as the bird of that name and as smart as a fox in a monastery hen coop.
Sorrowful as I am, I could not help smiling at his gawping expression when his practice sword went sailing over his head.
Father must have shared in my glee too because that very evening in the great hall, he, the noble Ealdorman Ealhere, called me to him. Assembled there, his thegns and bondsmen looked on as he solemnly presented me with his pride and joy, Breath Stealer, his incomparable sword crafted in Frankia. He held out the same weapon that won him and his heirs our land on the banks of the Stour, the river he and his grateful King, Athelstan, sailed up more than two-score years past to destroy the Danish fleet. They captured nine of their dragon-prowed ships and routed the rest at the battle off Bloody Point. Verses sung about that glorious day never tire me.
Now, father incomprehensibly handed the blade to me. My eyes grew as round as the bottoms of two leather ale flasks, and my lips formed a protest. But he said, “My son, Ecgwulf, is the finest swordsman, of his age, I have ever seen.” Father’s cold, steel-grey stare shifted to seek out the fool spluttering a laugh through his beer and came to rest on the idiot, Flodwig. The blacksmith’s son’s face flared red, and he feigned a coughing fit to cover his embarrassment.
“Father,” I said, “I cannot accept Breath Stealer; she’s yours forever.”
“Nothing is forever, lad, except the life eternal. Remember those words when you go into battle, and meanwhile, obey your father!” His face took on a grave expression, one seldom seen – so unlike his handsome, unvaryingly cheerful face. “Where I’m going, I won’t be needing her, God willing. Keep her well-honed and greased, son.”
In my childishness and in the panicked thought that my begetter was upping and leaving for another land, I did not understand. A moment’s reflection would have told me he would need a weapon if he meant to travel in these troubled times. But in those simple days of certainty, the greatest certitude of all was the reassuring strength of our ealdorman protector.
Three weeks later, the church bell tolled one repetitive mournful note, my happiness drained away and fled wraithlike in search of wherever his soul had gone. The great heart that loved all the folk in our settlement betrayed him. Yet, he must have known, else why would he have gifted me Breath Stealer? The mighty sword hung from my belt, too long for my height, and threatened to trip me as I hurried to the church. And, the reality of my situation did not sweep away the dreamlike trance possessing me. It could only be a bad dream – how could Father be dead? And yet, in vain, moments before, I had touched his neck seeking a pulse.
“Lord Ecgwulf,” the priest greeted me.
“What?” I said like a perfect imitation of Flodwig – if not in height and brawn, in stupidity.
Sorrow tempered the smile of Father Godfred. “You are the Ealdorman of Sondwic, my son. May God grant you the strength and wisdom to protect your people.”
These words chilled me to the marrow but, at the same time, would stay with me for the rest of my life.
“Amen,” I said from the depths of my heart, not suspecting how soon the latter virtue would be needed. The first depended only on my dedication to practice and training.
Arrangements in place with Godfred, I hastened back to comfort Ecgwynn. We were orphans now. Mother died of the ague that reaped half the souls in Sondwic when I had but seven winters behind me. Ecgwynn is truly beautiful, I still see Mother’s smiling face in my dozing moments, more winsome than her daughter.
I found Ecgwynn slipping a gold arm ring into place over Father’s muscular flesh. Flesh soon to decay in the churchyard. I shuddered. Would that my limbs were iron-hard like his. I had swung his sword in the seclusion of my room and wondered how long my tired arm needed to reach the mettle of a warrior. What if the Danes raided before summer ended? What use is a mere stripling as Ealdorman?
The arm ring was a prized possession given to Father by the King of the West Seaxa and overlord of Kent. Clever of Ecgwynn to remember! In a rush of love, I stepped over to her, she turned up her tear-streaked face to bestow on me the faintest smile. I knelt beside her and took her into my arms. “I am Ealdorman now,” I whispered, “and I will protect you. I swear it!”
She rested her flaxen hair with its golden streaks against my shoulder, her tremble made me hold her tighter.
“You are strong,” she sighed, “a man now.”
Coming from her, two years my elder, this pleased me beyond words. I loved her like a mother, my oath was true. I would spill my last drop of blood to safeguard Ecgwynn.
It must have been this thought and the advice of Father Godfred that drove me into a frenzy of weapon training as soon as our father was decently buried. Fighting the boys who had grown tired of the beatings I gave them did not satisfy me anymore. They did not stretch me to the limits I sought. But I did not need to order any of the menfolk to leave their daily work. Another surprise awaited me in the shape of my father’s friend, Osbald, a battle-hardened warrior. Seeing my frustration at overcoming a youth of a score of winters in less than a hundred heartbeats, he wandered over and picked up the wooden practice sword.
“Lord,” he said, “if you fight like that in battle, even a hunchback cripple would open you from there to there.” He drew the willow blade down my chest to my groin, I flushed red, pushing him away from me with my shield.
“Let’s see if you can do that, Osbald. Or if it will be the other way round?” I said, letting the hot-headedness of youth take over.
The warrior turned to my scowling, beaten adversary. “Give me the shield, good fellow, though heaven knows, I won’t need it.”
This remark and the sneer it elicited fanned the flames of my temper. With a cry, I leapt forward and swung a blow at Osbald’s head, which he swatted away with contemptuous ease. I rained strike after strike on him, each one meeting the same effortless parrying until my breath came in gasps.
All of a sudden, from whence I had no inkling, the wooden blade of my opponent struck upwards into my groin and left me writhing on the ground. As the object of mirth of the small gathering drawn to gape at the combat, I wanted to leap up and teach Osbald a lesson, but my nether parts sent a gnawing pain to the pit of my stomach and, instead, I lay groaning.
Osbald raised me to my feet and made me bend over time and again until the aching passed. He also growled at the youths who thought to mock their new Lord, bested before their eyes. “If any of you dog turds wish to show you are better than a heap of stinking shit, take up yon sword and prove it. Else shut your foul mouths.” With no takers, he turned back to me, “Ready, Lord?”
Indeed, I was all set to hand him a thrashing, but caution told me not to rush in as before, I circled him. This gained me a grunt of approval. The warrior feinted, I was open to the same attack that had undone me. Osbald was a loyal fellow and withheld the strike. If I can make love with a maid, I must thank him for his mercy.
“See that, Lord Ecgwulf?”
I had seen, I am a quick learner.
“Think you can do th—”
He didn’t have time to finish and, in truth, he wasn’t prepared because he was too busy instructing. That was why he lay on the ground with the same searing pain shooting up his innards.
One thing can be said for the folk of Sondwic, they are loyal and honest. A cheer and a slap on my back made me spin to stare into the face of the smith’s son, where I found genuine pleasure without a trace of malice.
“Well done, my Lord,” he said, his words were worth more than a bag of silver to me.
“Help him up, Flodwig, you’re stronger with me being out of breath.”
On his feet, Osbald bent over several times, and when he felt better, he gave me a level look.
“First lesson learnt, Lord, in battle strike when your enemy least expects it.” He rubbed his groin and grinned at me. “Your late beloved father asked me to give you lessons in swordsmanship. What say you, Lord? Every day an hour before the sun sets?”
“But at that time, the light is not at its best.”
“Which is why I chose that time of day. On the morrow, you can tell me why.”
With a wry smile, he flung down the practice sword and hobbled away with an uncomfortable gait caused by the lightning strike delivered with a flick of my wrist. Late in the day suited me. Every day, folk needed me for one reason or another. Yesterday I settled a boundary dispute and another brought by an angry ceorl claiming the miller had given him too little flour for the coin he had paid. In addition, I needed to organise the river patrol. Only few men were devoting time to it, and, quite rightly, they complained the task should be shared by more of them. Keeping a wary eye open for Danish long-ships was in everybody’s interest. In fact, I enjoyed sailing whenever I got the opportunity. Father had taken me out with him many times but only in fair weather. Never having faced an angry sea, I couldn’t claim to be a sailor. I sighed; so much to do and learn: strength and wisdom, I murmured. How right Father Godfred was – strength and wisdom were what I needed – by the Lunden bushel-load.
Sondwic, Kent, 894 AD
Awake to the familiar crowing of the cockerel and you believe it is another ordinary day. But some days are pivotal, inevitably, we face them unawares. Humming softly, I strolled past Ecgwynn’s chamber, intent on seeking a fresh raw egg to swallow when a sound halted me. My sister sobbing? I listened, not mistaken, the heart-wrenching sound continued. Whatever troubled her was grievous judging by the lament.
I curbed the impulse to burst into her chamber. Would she welcome comfort? Sweet-natured as she is, when crossed, her tongue can be sharper than the lash of a whip. To be honest, when she lost her temper, the fault, without exception, was mine. Although, on occasions, I was slow to admit as much.
That is why I delayed before raising a fist to hammer at her door. By chance, the appearance of another person overcame my hesitancy. The door swung back to reveal a maid. She started and gasped at the sight of my raised fist. I unclenched it to seize her arm and haul her out of Ecgwynn’s room, and, with my free hand, I pulled the door closed.
“What ails your mistress?”
The plaintive wailing, muffled by the oak barrier, continued to clutch at my stomach. The girl did not reply but hung her head.
“I asked you a question, girl!”
The young woman, no more than my age, looked up to meet my fierce stare. She did not hold my gaze but stared over my shoulder, a look of anguish on her face.
“Lord, I am sworn to secrecy.”
The words came out little more than a whisper, I heard aright.
At that, she nodded her head fit to shake it off.
“Keeping a pledge is admirable,” I smiled at her, but as the wench relaxed, my temper rose, “except there is a problem…” The anxiety returned to her face in an instant, and the little fool made to flee past me.
I have not raised a hand against a woman before, and hope I never will again, but instinct led me to block her escape and push her against the wall. She let out a cry, her darting eyes revealed her fear.
“If it has escaped you, that is my sister in there, I am your lord and master!” My fingers closed over the hilt of my hand-seax. I did not mean to use it – I never would – but, in fairness, I intended to scare the wits out of her. Her hand flew to her throat, and she swayed on her feet. For a moment, I dreaded she would faint on me.
“I mean you no harm, Lufe. It is Lufe, isn’t it?”
I knew full well her name; we had played together in the mud outside the hall when we were knee-high to our parents. The use of her name calmed her.
“Whatever ails your mistress is my affair. You know I care for her.”
The young woman nodded, still mute, but accompanied it with a weak smile. At last, she spoke.
“Lord, my father taught me a person is only worth her word. How can I betray a confidence?”
In truth, I admired her at that moment, as my own father had told me the same words. It gladdened me that Lufe was Ecgwynn’s maid, and I rewarded her with what I hoped was a handsome smile, “It would be unfair to ask such a thing of you. I cannot. Now, be off about your business!”
Away she tripped into the hall as if with a demon on her heels. The sobbing did not abate which wiped the smile off my face.
I plucked up courage and knocked on the door. A moment of silence passed from within, then the reddened eyes of Ecgwynn were staring at me from her tear-streaked face.
“Sister, what ails you?” I asked kindly.
“It is not a good time, Ecgwulf,” she sighed, “and yet sooner or later, we must talk else I fear I will lose my mind.”
“All your tears cannot bring Father back.”
“My tears are not for Father,” she looked ashamed, “although I miss him so much. How I wish I might seek his advice here and now!”
This came as a stinging slap in my face.
“I am not as wise as he, but I am here for you, sister.”
At these words, she stepped forward and pressed her head against my shoulder. Although nothing to do with her plight, I noted with pleasure I had grown taller than her, in spite of the two years that passed between us.