Poison and Treachery
The old Roman city of Verulamacæster was decaying. Many of the buildings had collapsed and had been replaced by Saxon buildings. Some of the most impressive still stood and it was possible to imagine what the city had looked like in Roman times.
In the old days the British tribe, the Catuvellauni, lived in the area of their chief city that they called Verulamium. It was said the Romans had built the city to make the Catuvellauni more like them. They had succeeded but had also made them soft and weak in warfare. A generation ago the Angles had moved east from Anglia seeking more land and had fought and defeated the Catuvellauni occupying their land although they had ignored their city.
Five summers ago, the Angles, in their turn were defeated and displaced by an East Saxon tribe, the Wæclingas, who sailed up the river Lygen and attacked and conquered Verulamacæster. The Wæclingas had not been as superstitious as the Angles and their King, Wæcla had made their main settlement at Verulamacæster or in East Saxon, Væclingascæster, the fortress of the people of Wæcla.
Verulamacæster still had strong Roman walls and many of the crumbling Roman buildings were still occupied. Wæcla, the Wæclingascyning, had made his chief dwelling in the main Basilica, an immense Roman building set at the centre of the city. The Hrothgarsons were impressed by the decaying grandeur. Wulfhere thought that while the building might be magnificent he wondered if it would be hard to heat and therefore cold in the winter. Uthric said he was less keen to discuss architecture and very much more interested in talking to Wæcla as soon as possible and find out where Meire was.
Wulfhere introduced himself and his brothers to lænbeorht, the King's Gerēfa1. Uthric was disappointed to learn the Wæcla was away on the business of his Kingdom. Iænbeorht said that he did not expect Wæcla to return before the Cyningmoot in two days’ time. Uthric asked if he could talk to Ealhwyn and was surprised to learn the she had been imprisoned. Wulfhere wondered why this had been done as he thought that it might not bring Wæcla much luck when either her father, the Ealdorman Hrof, or her husband the Aethling, Wlencig, discovered what had happened.
lænbeorht said that he was in no doubt that Wæcla was justified in his actions as Ealhwyn had attempted to poison him. Dunstan wondered how this was possible but Iænbeorht did not answer his question. He said to his brothers he did not trust Iænbeorht with his thin, pock-marked face and nervous twitch. He said he did not like the way lænbeorht never looked anyone in the eye and constantly fidgeted with his tally sticks. Uthric asked him if he had heard any news of Meire who he believed had accompanied Ealhwyn. Iænbeorht did not answer Uthric's question but left going through a side door.
Uthric was at a loss and unsure what he should do next. One of the guards, Theodric, talked to Wulfhere. He said that a woman, much as Uthric had described, had been with Ealhwyn and had taken up residence in Hering's Inn in the town. He thought Uthric might want to be careful of the woman and he should know that most of the people who had dealings with her had thought she had been uncanny. The warriors thought that she might be a drýicge2. She had removed herself from Ealhwyn's quarters and had gone to stay in the Inn with one of her guards.
Uthric thanked Theodric and gave him a thin silver arm ring. The Hrothgarsons made their way to the Inn and asked for Hering to enquire if Meire was still at the Inn. Hering confirmed that there was a woman living in the upper floor and said that he hoped that they had come to take her away as he and his patrons found her too strange but were not keen to confront her and ask her to leave. He said that there were often strange noises coming from her room and smells like the Charnel pits of Nastrønd. He also objected to her bodyguard who never talked and allowed no-one to talk to her. He had therefore not been able to ask her to leave. Uthric said while the description of the woman sounded like Meire, he had never known her to act like Hering described. He also wondered who the guard might be and if the situation that Hering described was true would they be able to get past him to see if it was Meire.
They went up some stone steps to the upper floor and were confronted by a man in full chainmail and a closed helm. He held a naked sword held in his hand and he turned to meet Uthric as he approached. Uthric stopped and waited. Dunstan put his hand on his seax as he thought this situation might not end well. Uthric asked the man if he could enter to see Meire. The man did not speak but nodded his agreement. However, he stopped Wulfhere and Dunstan with a movement of his hand and the implied threat of his sword as they moved to join Uthric. Neither Wulfhere nor Dunstan decided that it was a good time to argue the rights and wrongs of the Guard’s decision.
Uthric opened the door and was hit with a blast of heat on his face. It seemed that the room was on fire but when his eyes stopped watering he could see Meire surrounded by a ring of fire. She was naked and appeared to be talking in a language that he did not know to someone he could not see. He stood in the doorway for several minutes and the flames died down. Meire turned to him and said to him that he was late in coming again but she had come to expect this. She thought he might want to greet his children while she got dressed. Uthric only then noticed that both children were sitting on the bed. Uthric went to his sons, Hrothgar and Sigebeorht who were wide-eyed and sitting rigid on the bed. Uthric said that he and Meire needed to discuss matters. He thought the children might be better not to hear what needed to be said and proposed that they spend some time with his brothers. Meire agreed and warmly kissed both children who in turn hugged her tightly.
Uthric took both boys to Wulfhere and explained the situation. Wulfhere was reluctant to take the boys. He said he would prefer to hear from Meire what had passed but the prospect of having to fight her Guard with only his seax and no shield or armour did not fill him with hope. Dunstan thought that in that case Wulfhere would have to accept the current circumstances and that he would have to wait for any news after Uthric had finished talking with Meire. Dunstan said that he was also not keen to force the issue with the Guard. Wulfhere took the boys downstairs to the tavern and bought food and ale. As they sat waiting on the outcome of Uthric’s conversation with Meire, Hrothgar asked if he could ask Wulfhere a question. When Wulfhere said that he thought he might be able to cope with one question, Hrothgar said he would like to know if his father could burst into flames like his mother and wondered if it was something he was also supposed to do also. Wulfhere was not sure what Hrothgar was talking about but he reassured him that people generally didn't go on fire and his opinion on the matter was that Hrothgar had no need to burst into flames.
Meire told Uthric the tale of her understanding of events. She explained that she had accompanied Ealhwyn at Sæberht's request to meet with the various petty-kings of the East Saxons throughout Mierce. Sæberht and Ealhwyn had hoped to forge alliances of the small kingdoms against the larger predatory Kings. Not only were the Britons a constant enemy, Guercha One-eye was pushing west again, hoping to gain control of lands his men had lost seven summers ago. In the west, Aelle was trying to gain influence on the lands north of the Tamyse and had established his forces at Aeglesburgh. The view was that he wanted more land to claim the Brytenwealda. People of Mierce were also concerned about Cerdic's motivation and his plans for Mierce. Ealhwyn had brought Sæberht's message to Wæcla. She had intended to travel on to meet with Iota, Cyning of the Chilternsæte, after delivering the message, but had delayed as she was enjoying the company of Wæcla.
Ealhwyn’s plans were in disarray when Wæcla was then poisoned at his own feast. He had been sitting alone with Ealhwyn, having dismissed his Þegns so he could talk in private with her. Ealhwyn was the only person near Wæcla and Iænbeorht had found a bottle containing hemlock in her rooms when she was arrested after Wæcla had collapsed. However, Meire said she did not believe Ealhwyn would poison him. She had no reason to do so as Ealhwyn was convinced it would be better that a strong King like Wæcla was an ally rather than dead or an enemy. Besides Meire thought that they may have been lovers. She told Uthric that Wæcla had many enemies and any of them could be responsible for the poisoning. She had tried to seek otherworld help but could get no clear understanding of what had happened. She had discovered the source of the poison, hemlock, had been harvested in the north woods. She told Uthric she would not leave until she proved Ealhwyn innocent and she was released. Meire then informed Uthric that she fully expected him to help her and as a penance for leaving her alone for so long. Uthric had not said anything during Meire's explanation. He said he thought he had no choice other than help Meire in her task. However, he said that he might like to know who her strange guard was. Meire said that this was easily cleared up unlike the mystery of the poisoning as the guard was her brother Horith. Her other brother was Ardreth and he was guarding Ealhwyn.
Uthric did not come back down to the main room in the tavern so Wulfhere had to pay for sleeping areas in the common room for himself, Dunstan and Uthric's children, Hrothgar and Sigebeorht. Dunstan was annoyed that Uthric had left them to look after his children but Wulfhere said that Uthric had been separated from Meire for almost two years and they needed some time together.
In the morning Uthric joined them in the common room. Uthric told them of the discussion with Meire and their need to free Ealhwyn. He thought they could complete the task by making an assault on Ealhwyn’s prison and free her before escaping. Wulfhere said that violence was only one option. He felt it might be better to speak with Wæcla first and thought that there may be some merit in discussion. Wæcla had not harmed Ealhwyn which might mean many things but he clearly was either afraid to kill her or he did not believe her guilt. Dunstan said that they could look in the north woods. He reminded them Meire had said that the hemlock came from the north woods. He thought it might be useful to look to see what they could find.
Uthric took Hrothgar and Sigebeorht back to Meire and told her they would go into the north woods. Meire told them that they should look for a lightening-struck oak that looked like a troll. They went first to Wæcla's Hall to talk with Iænbeorht. As they approached him he was talking intimately to a well-dressed noble woman. Dunstan thought that it was Iænbeorht's wife and was surprised that when the woman was introduced the was the Cyninge, Brithwen.
Wulfhere chose to ignore the intimate exchange and introduced himself and his brothers to Brithwen. Brithwen made polite conversation and asked their business in Verulamacæster. Wulfhere said they had been looking for Uthric's wife who he had unfortunately lost and had been looking for her for over a year. Brithwen asked Uthric if he had found her to which Uthric replied that he was pleased to report that he had. Wulfhere decided that Uthric might say something about Meire as he sensed that she had not been popular in the Hall and even somewhat feared. He asked Iænbeorht when Wæcla was due back as he wished to talk to him before they went back south. Iænbeorht thought he should be back tomorrow but at the latest in the morning of the second day to attend the Cyningmoot. Wulfhere said that he would go hunting and they heard that the north woods had some wild boar. He wished both a good day and left.
Dunstan wondered if Iænbeorht and Brithwen were having a relationship. Wulfhere said that it certainly looked like it and thought that Iænbeorht may have tried to get rid of Wæcla to be with Brithwen. Uthric said that was unlikely. He said he would be astonished if any woman chose Iænbeorht.
After some hours of searching they found a lightening-struck oak that resembled a gnarled troll. They found evidence that someone had dug up hemlock plants and Dunstan found a blue thread from a cloak caught in a bush. Wulfhere thought they might have some evidence to find out who made the poison. Uthric said he thought they had found something but that it was not real evidence. He asked them to consider how many people had blue cloaks and did it really have any significance that someone had dug up hemlock plants. He thought that while someone digging up hemlock might not be a common event it was not in itself suspicious. He pointed out neither event might have any connection to the poisoning of Wæcla. Wulfhere said he agreed with Uthric and that they needed to be careful about drawing conclusions and making allegations as they were strangers in this land. Uthric said that he should never have agreed to help Ealhwyn and the sooner they left this land the better. He said he was not hopeful.
While Uthric and Wulfhere were discussing their problems and feeling sorry for themselves, Dunstan had been looking at the soft ground and found a set of small human foot prints. He suggested that his brothers might be better employed helping him follow the tracks. He thought that maybe in doing so they might be able to put to rest the question if the things they had found are connected with the poisoning of Wæcla. Uthric and Wulfhere agreed and praised him for his efforts.
It did not take that long until they came across a clearing that had a small moss-covered dwelling. An old wizened woman was tending an open fire over which a small cauldron was bubbling. She looked up and greeted the men. Wulfhere introduced himself but almost immediately recoiled from the overpowering smell coming from her. He gathered himself and resisted the urge to vomit and asked her if she lived alone in the woods. The woman named herself as Háthygge and said that she lived alone in the woods by choice. She said no one was really interested in an old woman, living alone without any wealth. She said people found her useful as she was excellent at brewing potions and asked if they had perhaps come to buy a potion from her.
Wulfhere said they were more interested in the potions she may have made recently rather than ones she might still have. Uthric said they were interested in anyone who might have bought a hemlock potion strong enough to kill a man. Háthygge said there had indeed been such a man who had bartered for such a potion. He had offered her gold but she had not been interested. She told them gold only attracted bandits and neither the birds that gave her eggs or the bees that give her honey accepted gold as fair exchange of goods. Dunstan said that he had not thought of bartering goods with animals before now and despite his interest in such deals, he was actually presently more interested in who the man was. Háthygge said that unfortunately she could not tell him a name for the man but she could tell them that he did offer two excellently made small cauldrons which she accepted as payment. She broke off the conversation to point out the bubbling cauldron over the fire and suddenly left to go into her dwelling and quickly returned with another similar cauldron. She invited them to inspect it and admire its quality. Uthric said he could appreciate the quality workmanship but wondered if she might describe the man who gave her the wonderful set of cauldrons.
Háthygge said that she had not much to tell about him other than he wore a hooded cloak and his hands were stained black. She did think it was odd at the time but had not thought to ask him how he had got black hands. Wulfhere asked if the man's cloak was blue and he took the blue thread from his pouch to show her. Háthygge said that the man had in fact worn a brown cloak but she thought that the thread might be from her best cloak if they were interested in that. She went back into her dwelling and showed them a threadbare blue cloak that had been patched and sewn where the weave had come undone. Wulfhere thanked her for her information and Uthric was moved to give her his own cloak which he thought might keep her warmer than her old cloak. Háthygge said she was grateful for Uthric’s gift and asked if they were sure they did not want to buy potions. All of them respectfully declined.
On the way back to Verulamacæster they discussed how this information might be of help but none of them could come up with any clear way forward other than they were looking for a man with black hands. Dunstan said he had not yet noticed anyone with black hands in Verulamacæster but at least it was something positive. Wulfhere said their current information was that they had connected the buying of poison with the brown cloaked man and that he had black hands. He wondered why someone might have black hands but could not think of any reason. Uthric said that he had been thinking about small cauldrons like the ones given to Háthygge and he thought they were unusual. Most people bought larger cooking cauldrons and the smaller ones seemed to be specialist in design. He thought it might be useful to ask some of the blacksmiths who might have made them and if anyone had bought two recently.
It was late when they got back and when they went to the Kings Hall they found out Wæcla had returned earlier that day but had retired early. Uthric was frustrated. He said he wanted to sort this mystery out, take Meire and return home before the weather became too difficult to travel. Wulfhere said that they were now on a course and they would need to follow it to its end if they were to get home.
The next day they attended the Moot. People had come from all over the Kingdom seeking justice from Wæcla. Some had not had satisfaction at either the Þegns or Ealdorman's courts and had appealed to the King. Others had issue with Wæcla's judgements and thought they could get him to reconsider. The Hrothgarsons were impressed with Wæcla who seem to know his people and they also thought his judgments were fair. Dunstan thought this was the kind of place he would like to live. Wulfhere said that many of the Kingdoms problems arose from refugees from wars or people who had been displaced and come north. Some of them were settlers from Saxony who had arrived by boat. He also thought that while many of the judgements were for the benefit of the majority of the people, they also increased the dissatisfaction of some powerful people.
He pointed out that Sperling, the Miller, was aggrieved at having to pay the King two sacks of flour for every ten sacks milled. Wæcla had pointed out that many of the new arrivals did not have enough food for the winter and he was building stocks so that he could feed hungry refugees but it increased the hostility of Sperling the Miller. Wulfhere said that there were probably more millers who felt as angry as Sperling. The Cloth merchant, Hwætmund was also angry that Wæcla had set the price for cloth and did not allow him to overcharge. Wæcla told Hwætmund that if more people survived the winter rather than freezing to death then he would be able to sell more cloth in the future to more people. Wulfhere thought Hwætmund was not that interested in future profit and that he remained angry.
Uthric said that he would be more concerned that Seirhead the Chief Huscarl was at odds with Wæcla over how to deal with the iron miners that they had discovered working in the Chiltern hills. Seirhead had wanted to raid and kill the miners whereas Wæcla wanted to incorporate the miners into his Kingdom and then tax them in iron. Wæcla had pointed out that the kingdom could do with its own source of iron and he was pretty sure Seirhead or the Huscarls were not skilled in extracting iron from the Chiltern hills. Uthric thought that Wæcla’s views only seemed to enrage Seirhead. Seirhead had countered that the Huscarls had not had any chance to fight and they were grumbling about not getting much wealth from raids because of Wæcla’s peaceful attitude to everyone. Uthric said they should be aware that some of the Huscarls seemed to support Seirhead rather than Wæcla. He also thought it might increase the level of aggression over the winter if the Huscarls had been unemployed over the summer seasons. The farmers preferred peace and security but the Huscarls liked conflict because it brought them wealth and renown. They might end up fighting each other.
Two leæches, Snyring and Nægel, had complained about the presence of Christians in the city. They objected that Wæcla tolerated them both as Britons and importantly they worshiped another god. Nægel said that the local spirits were angry and hard to placate because of the presence of the Christian shrine. Snyring said that it would probably satisfy the spirits and gods if they were to sacrifice the priest, Bairre, to Thunor. Wæcla said that in his opinion one god was the same as another. He thought the Leæches needed to accept that people can choose what god they worshiped and, in his opinion, it did not matter if it was Thunor, Woden or the White Christ.
Uthric had felt it was important to stand and up and ask to speak on his experiences of Christians. He introduced himself to Wæcla who then gave him permission to speak. Uthric spoke passionately about the wars that the followers of the Christian god had caused in Dumnonia. He said that they had fought against their own king and Cerdic and Aelle had almost overrun Dumnonia because of their treachery. He said it was his opinion that the Christians were never satisfied and if they increased in number then they would want to eliminate anyone who worshipped different gods. He said that it might be in Wæcla's best interests to expel the priest now. Wæcla thanked Uthric for his views and said that he would talk about this later with him.
After Uthric had spoken, Nægel and Snyring came to talk to him. They said they liked his views on Christians as it was in alignment with their own thoughts. They thought that Uthric and his brothers, if they held the same views, might like him to come to their dwelling and talk with another leæch called Dunric who had similar ideas on how to deal with Christians. Uthric said that he had met Dunric several times and that he did not have a high opinion of him. He thought Dunric might have a similar view of the Hrothgarsons as they had not been friends in the past. Nægel said that Dunric would not take offence about the past and he should come as requested.
When the Moot finished the Hrothgarsons decided to take a walk around the walls of the City to discuss what they had observed and heard. Dunstan said that the prime suspect had to be Dunric. He noted that Dunric always caused trouble wherever he went and he for one would not be surprised if he was behind poisoning Wæcla. They should remember what he had done to Tadda.
Wulfhere said that there were many people who had issues with Wæcla and after the Moot the list of suspects with a motive had got longer. He thought that they now needed to talk to Wæcla to discuss the matters with him.
(1) Gerēfa1 is a Steward or King’s Reeve
(2) Drýicge2 is a witch or sorceress