Fire and Violent Death
After the Moot, Wæcla held a feast and invited the Hrothgarsons to the High Table to discuss why they had come to Verulamacæster. Dunstan told the story of the Bannucmann in the hope that he would distract Wæcla’s attention but got himself tongue-tied and the listeners lost interest in his telling of the tale. Dunstan was upset with himself but most of the warriors were so drunk that Wulfhere said to him that he did not think it would affect their standing in the Hall. Wulfhere noticed that Wæcla did not drink much and he thought it might be a good idea to copy the King.
Uthric had been brooding throughout the meal and did not say much. He had said to Dunstan that he was worried that Dunric had suddenly appeared again and had a feeling that this did not bode well for anyone. Dunstan explained to Wæcla that Uthric’s poor mood was because he had been worried that Dunric had come to his Kingdom and he did not see it as a coincidence that Wæcla had then been poisoned. He told Wæcla of their past dealings with Dunric and how he took great interest in death and killing innocent people by causing extreme suffering and pain. Wæcla said he was unsure what Dunstan wanted him to do. He said he was aware that leæches often sacrificed people to further their aims and while he did not agree with it, he accepted that it might be necessary for others to live. He thought priests and leæches were often inscrutable in their actions and he had found that trying to judge their motives as good or evil was essentially difficult and, in his experience, never successful. Wæcla thought Dunric may be evil and act evilly, as Dunstan had said, but he was, without doubt, being prompted by the gods or spirits. Wæcla did not see that he was therefore in a position to judge him or act against him without more evidence.
Wæcla said he was more interested in their relationship with Hrof, Aelle and Cerdic. He said that they had by now heard that he had imprisoned Ealhwyn and he wanted to know if they could tell him how Hrof might respond. Wulfhere said that he could not claim to know Hrof well but they had met him a few times. He had found him to be a generous man to his friends but he was implacable as an enemy. He did know that he was fond of his daughter and that he could only guess that Hrof was still unaware of Ealhwyn’s imprisonment. Wæcla said he had been thinking how he should respond to Hrof and had not yet decided what to do with Ealhwyn. Uthric wanted to know if that was because he thought Ealhwyn was not guilty of poisoning him. Wæcla said he was still not sure but the evidence pointed to the fact that she was the only one who could have put the poison in his cup and the bottle of poison had been found in her sleeping chambers. Uthric said that the King must be aware that he had many enemies and not all of them identified themselves openly. Wæcla agreed with Uthric and said he thought this was a consequence of trying to be fair to everyone. Some mistook his justice as weakness.
He asked if they knew of Aelle's intentions. Wulfhere said that Aelle's motivation was unknown to him but that he had found Aelle, in general, to be more open than Cerdic. One could always tell what Aelle was thinking as he tended to be hot-headed and emotional. Cerdic, on the other hand, did not let emotions rule his actions. Wulfhere said that, as he was the most northerly of Cerdic's Ealdorman, what he could tell Wæcla was that Cerdic had currently no thoughts of invasion of Mierce. His goal appeared to be to thwart Aelle's attempt to take land north of the Tamyse. There was peace at present between the two Kings but Wulfhere said that he could not see it lasting. He said both were too ambitious. Wæcla thought that if they fought each other then they would be likely to leave Mierce alone but it was clear to him that he could not really trust either King.
They talked of other things that were more immediate and Uthric admitted that he had come north to find his wife, Meire. Wæcla was keen to hear the story and Uthric was able to keep the King’s interest with the tale. Wulfhere asked if he could have Wæcla’s opinion on Brithwen’s relationship with Iænbeorht as he had observed it to be overfamiliar. Wæcla thought Wulfhere's comment amusing. He said he would forgive the remark as Wulfhere was more than likely unaware that Iænbeorht was Brithwen's mother's brother. Wulfhere was surprised and apologised for his insinuation although he had found the interaction strange. Wæcla said that his wife, the Cyninge, was beyond reproof. He asked if they would be leaving in the morning but Uthric said that Meire was unwilling to leave without ensuring that Ealhwyn was declared innocent. Wæcla said that he thought this would be a good thing and when Dunstan asked if they could visit Ealhwyn in her rooms, Wæcla said he could think of no reason why that could not happen.
When they were alone, the Hrothgarsons discussed the information that they had and what they needed still to do. Wulfhere said he still had suspicions about the Christians but that Cissa, Aelle’s son and Northern Warleader, had most to gain from Wæcla’s death. Dunstan said he was still confused by what was happening and said that it would be a lot simpler to take over the Kingdom rather than all of the plotting and poisoning. Wulfhere said that it would surely be sufficient to have someone in charge who is well disposed or willing to become a vassal of another Kingdom. Uthric said he was confused too but his confusion was about Ealhwyn’s motivation. He reminded his brothers that Ealhwyn was Hrof's daughter and married to Wlencig, Aelle's son. He wondered if the she had been acting on Aelle's behalf.
Wulfhere said that they all agreed that Aelle and Cissa would benefit most from Wæcla's death. They could then absorb the lands of the Wæclingas and expand their territory further east but to do so they would need a compliant or inexperienced King. He wondered who might succeed Wæcla if he had died. There was no guarantee Wæcla's son, Scænwulf, would be the next Wæclingascyning as the Moot would need to vote for him and from what they had seen of him they were not sure he was capable of ruling a Kingdom. None of them had any idea of the power distribution in the land and what would happen at the Moot.
Uthric had drunk too much the night before and felt very unwell the next morning. Dunstan on the other hand, was moving around noisily and whistling which caused Uthric to complain about inconsiderate people. Dunstan decided to leave Uthric sleeping and avoid an argument. He went into the main Hall and sat at one of the benches calling one of the serving women over to ask if he could have something to eat to break his night fast. He paid the serving woman, Mildburh, compliments and asked her opinions on the food. Mildburh was flattered by his attention and was happy to spend time talking to him. However, she said that she had to make it clear that if he was trying to get her to sleep with him then he would be wasting his time. She did suggest that if that was what he was interested in, then he should seek out Edoma, the kitchen maid, and that giving her some silver would get him what he wanted. Dunstan said that he had only been making conversation and settled down into eat his food. He did keep talking to Mildburh as she went about her chores and she returned his comments with equal enthusiasm.
When Wulfhere joined Dunstan, he noted that Dunstan seemed to have attracted the attention of another woman and wondered why he needed to be surrounded by women and thought perhaps that he was not satisfied with only one. Dunstan said his mind was fully on Æthlind and that she was in every way beautiful, intelligent and hard-working and therefore all he needed. She had also given him a new son, Alhstan, who he believed would be a famous warrior one day. Wulfhere laughed as he noticed that Mildburh was paying close attention to Dunstan's plate and seemed to always be nearby by despite the number of other men in the hall looking for food.
Wulfhere asked Mildburh if the king had a Beorsceale1 and who ran the household, particularly at feasts. Mildburh said that Brithwen, as the Cyninge, was in charge of the household but Haneald was the Boldweard2 and assisted the Queen. The boy, Oswui was the Beorsceale and it was he that sometimes served ale to the King. Wulfhere thanked her and when she was out of earshot said that once again Dunstan had got an attractive woman interested in him. Dunstan said that Wulfhere had misjudged him and if Wulfhere was interested in sleeping with Mildburh, he might find himself disappointed. He thought that Wulfhere would be more successful if he sought out Edoma, the kitchen maid, and gave her some silver. Wulfhere looked quizzically at Dunstan and said he was obviously still drunk as he was still not making sense. Dunstan shrugged his shoulders and said he was only trying to be helpful.
Uthric eventually joined them in the main Hall and as he ate, Wulfhere discussed what they must do. He thought primarily they should see and speak with Ealhwyn but it might be also useful to talk to Haneald and Oswui. Dunstan said that he would like to talk to Bairre the Priest as he did not trust Christians to not cause trouble wherever they went and he thought it best to find out what his motives were for being in Verulamacæster. Uthric mumbled something about Blacksmiths and cauldrons but neither of his brothers were sure what he meant for he spoke so low and haltingly, frequently stopping midsentence to hold his head.
While they were waiting for Wæcla to come into the Hall to gain permission to speak to Ealhwyn, Wulfhere talked to Haneald the Boldweard. Wulfhere thought Haneald was guarded in his responses but he was not sure who he was protecting. Haneald said that during feasts it was his duty to ensure that the Hall had enough food and drink, making sure that the servants were continually filling the drinking horns and trenchers. He said it was always the Cyninge's duty to ensure the guests at the High Table had enough to eat and drink but, on that particular night, Brithwen had not served the High Table became she did not want to embarrass the Cyning, who sat alone with Ealhwyn. Haneald said it was not up to him to comment on the actions of the King but he left Wulfhere with no doubt that he disapproved of Wæcla's behaviour. He said that Oswui, the Beorsceale, had served Wæcla and Ealhwyn that night. Wulfhere said he would like to talk to Oswui if that was possible.
Oswui was brought into the Hall at Wulfhere’s request. He was a young boy of about eleven summers and Wulfhere thought he was likely to be the son of some favoured Þegn. Oswui was nervous and as he spoke he constantly played with an amulet of silver and gold that hung around his neck. Oswui said that he had given the Cyning and the Lady Ealhwyn drinks all night. He said that late into the night, Wæcla had suddenly stood up, had fallen over and had then begun to shake. Oswui said that despite what people were saying he did not believe Ealhwyn could have poisoned the Cyning because she was too nice. Wulfhere said that just because someone seems nice does not mean that they sometimes do things that are wrong. Oswui became flustered and upset by Wulfhere's words and held more tightly onto his amulet. Wulfhere asked who had given Oswui the drinking horns to give to the Cyning and was told that it had been the Cyninge. Oswui was startled by Wulfhere's question and possible consequences and said he did not think that Brithwen would have poisoned her husband. Wulfhere thanked him for the talk and went back to the bench where he had left Uthric and Dunstan.
Dunstan had despaired of Uthric recovering from too much ale the night before and had left him to seek out Bairre, the Christian Priest. He asked directions from the guards on the Hall door and was told that Christians were not allowed to live within the city walls. They believed that he lived at a shrine to the Christian god to the east of the City. Dunstan eventually found the Priest, Bairre mac Guilla where the guards had told him. He was a small, round man with thinning hair and a stained robe. Bairre was excited to see Dunstan and told him he was welcome and glad he had sought him out to hear the message of the gospel. Dunstan said he was unsure what that might be but said he was always open to discussion. Dunstan acknowledged that he was not overly familiar with Christians and his previous experience of them had not endeared them. Bairre said that he thought that this may have been an unfortunate experience as he believed that most Christians were good people. He likened them to fishermen except that they were interested in saving souls. Dunstan frowned so heavily, Bairre took a backward step. Dunstan said that neither idea filled him with joy. He disliked fishermen because they had given him unending trouble. He was also not happy about any discussions about souls having lost and then found his own recently. Bairre said that he would like to hear the tale sometime but Dunstan said that he was not keen to tell it at the moment and it would need to be told at a later date, if Bairre was still interested.
Dunstan decided he needed to change the subject and said he was keen to hear why the Priest had come to Verulamacæster because he was certain there were no other Christians in the area. Bairre reluctantly admitted this was true. His own people who were left in the area had taken up worshipping demons and idols. He had come with two junior priests to tend the shrine of Alban, a Christian martyr, who had been beheaded by the Romans for hiding a Priest. Dunstan said that he thought that the Priest must have been a criminal or else he would not need to have hidden. He therefore should have been given over to the Romans but Bairre disagreed and said Alban had been a good man. Dunstan said he was not sure he would ever understand Britons or Romans. They seemed to have an ability to cause unending harm to each other.
Bairre said that he thought that characterisation of Christians was unfair and he reached to touch Dunstan’s arm to guide him towards the shrine. In doing so he revealed his hands that had been concealed by his robe. Dunstan noticed that his fingers were stained black and he asked Bairre why this was so. Bairre said that he spent his spare time copying out sections of his God’s Holy words in a book. The black stains were ink. Dunstan said he had never heard the word ink before and he pressed Bairre for an explanation. Bairre showed him the book and Dunstan said that he would call the marks in the book Runes and if this was the case then Bairre could rightly be described as a sorcerer. Bairre was upset by Dunstan’s words and repudiated that he would ever be involved in sorcery. Dunstan remained unconvinced and said he thought he should return to his brothers. Bairre asked him to come back again.
Uthric had eventually gathered himself and had gone to the street where the īsernsmiþas3 worked. He asked around about small cauldrons but none of the īsernsmiþas said that they would do such a job unless specifically commissioned. They said that no-one would want such small cauldrons to cook with. Uthric noticed that most of the īsernsmiþas had black hands and when he asked them about the colour they explained that working with hot metal always caused burns where slivers of the metal and charcoal mixed to turn their hands black. One of them said that it was considered lucky and he had found that the women liked it. Uthric said that he thought he could manage woman’s interest without burning his hands black.
Wulfhere was waiting for Wæcla to come into the Hall but when he arrived he was having an ongoing argument with his son, Scænwulf. Wulfhere was not close enough to hear what the argument was about before Scænwulf left in anger. Wulfhere decided that he would wait for Wæcla to calm down before asking to see Ealhwyn who might be another source of anger for Wæcla. He decided he might await the return of his brothers and continued to watch and wait but Wæcla did not seem to concerned about Scænwulf’s behaviour. Wulfhere concluded that it must be a regular occurrence. Wæcla continued with his daily tasks and was ensuring that his judgements from the Moot had been carried out. He brought Hwætmund the Merchant to see him and reminded him that he had made an agreement to charge a fixed price for cloth and yet he had heard that he was still overcharging. Hwætmund tried to claim it had been an accident but Wæcla said he was not interested in excuses.
When his brother’s returned Wulfhere was still sitting listening to Wæcla. He said to them that it was easy to see why Wæcla was a popular King. He was very focused on protecting his people from those that would exploit them but Wulfhere said he also thought that he had many enemies because of that. Dunstan said that Kings are likely to have enemies. Uthric agreed and pointed out that Dunstan continually complains about Cerdic to anyone who will listen and even to those that tell him they are not interested in his views.
Wulfhere told them he had witnessed Scænwulf argue with his father and Dunstan wondered if he could have attempted to poison Wæcla. While they were discussing this, Sceirhead the Chief Huscarl, came over and asked them if they needed some exercise. He said he was planning a trip to the Chiltern Hills and thought he could use more people that knew how to handle themselves. He thought the Hrothgarsons’ reputation was sufficient for them to have a prominent place in his Warband. Wulfhere respectfully declined the offer and said that if their time was their own there was nothing he would like better than exercising with Sceirhead. Sceirhead said he was disappointed and maybe their fame was only made up by Lēoþwyrhtan4. Wulfhere chose to ignore Sceirhead’s provocation.
Wulfhere said that he would continue to watch the Hall and Uthric and Dunstan should go and meet Ealhwyn. He thought he might learn information by watching the interaction and the added bonus was that he could also continue to drink Wæcla’s excellent ale while he did so.
Uthric and Dunstan went to see Ealhwyn. Outside the door, one of Meire’s brothers stood guard. He did not respond nor hinder Uthric or Dunstan when Uthric said that they were here to visit Ealhwyn. Uthric explained why they had come to see her and Ealhwyn’s initial hostility was replaced by a warm welcome. Ealhwyn was grateful that Meire had not deserted her and that the Hrothgarsons were searching for evidence to allow her to be freed. She was adamant that she had nothing to do with Wæcla’s poisoning. Ealhwyn could tell them little that they already did not know about the night Wæcla was poisoned.
She was initially reluctant to tell them her business with Wæcla but when Dunstan said that it would be difficult to help her if they were not aware of everything she was doing. After some thought Ealhwyn agreed to their request but she made them swear an oath of silence before she told them. Ealhwyn told them that she had agreed a plan with Saeberht, her cousin to create a Miercian confederacy to defend themselves against the three most powerful Kings, Guercha One-eye, Aelle and Cerdic. It was Sæberht’s opinion that all three had shown intent to invade Mierce to further their aims to be Brytenwealda. The Miercians, on the other hand, only wanted to be ruled by their own elected Kings. Uthric said that he found this strange and could not quite work out why she was doing this. He said she was, after all, Hrof’s daughter and Wlencig’s husband and both had strong loyalty to Aelle. Ealhwyn acknowledged what both had said but she said she believed that people needed to choose their own destinies and Aelle, Cerdic and Guercha would not allow that. After a moment she added that despite his love for her, her father would also not allow people to seek their own wyrd.
As for her husband, Wlencig, she had no real feelings for him. It had been a marriage to cement the alliance of their respective fathers. Uthric asked about her relationship with Wæcla and, after a moment of silence, Ealhwyn admitted they were lovers. Dunstan said that he thought this might be a motive for the poisoning. Uthric agreed and wondered if Ealhwyn had been blamed to stop her relationship with Wæcla. Ealhwyn said that while this was possible it was likely to be a more political act.
Uthric and Dunstan went back to talk to Wulfhere. Dunstan thought there were too many layers to Wæcla’s poisoning. There were many people who could have had a motive but he thought by focusing on those that would benefit most they might be able to find out what had happened. Wulfhere said that in his view it must be one of the Kings who has paid someone to get rid of Wæcla. He thought that Wæcla was possibly the only one that could hold a Miercian Confederation together. Wulfhere said that no-one would pretend to know Cerdic’s mind but he seemed to be focused on lands to the west. Aelle, through Cissa, was the most active north of the Tamyse and no-one knew what Guercha’s plans were. Uthric thought Aelle or Cissa could have bought one of Wæcla’s people and that person was responsible for the poisoning. Dunstan thought that they needed to free Ealhwyn and leave. He thought they might blame Bairre mac Guilla or ask him to preach against adultery to infuriate the King. Neither Uthric nor Wulfhere thought of Dunstan’s plans as useful.
As they were leaving the Hall, Mildburh came over to Dunstan. She reminded him of the questions he had asked her that morning and said that he might be interested that Brithwen had a disagreement with Sceirhead this morning in the herb garden and directly afterwards she had another argument with a man she did not know. She thought he was likely a craftsperson from his clothing. Dunstan thanked her and gave her a broach which she was delighted with. He asked her to continue to listen for any other useful bits of information. She moved closer to him and whispered that the Cyninge’s maid, Estrith, had told her that Brithwen was angry at Wæcla because of his relationship with Ealhwyn. Brithwen had told Estrith that she feared that she and her eldest son, Scænwulf, will be discarded and Wæcla will have children with Ealhwyn.
Wulfhere gathered his brothers to talk about what they now knew. He started by saying he had been thinking that they were basing their premise on Meire’s word that Ealhwyn was not guilty of poisoning Wæcla. He wondered if they should also consider that she could have poisoned him. Uthric said that if Wulfhere doubted Meire, he might want to take it up with her brothers. Wulfhere ignored his comment and reviewed some other points. If Brithwen was divorced by Wæcla would that mean Iænbeorht would be dismissed as the Hlafweard5. Would the threat of losing his position be enough for Iænbeorht to consider killing Wæcla to keep his role and to uphold the honour of his sister’s daughter.
Dunstan said they had forgotten about the leæches and in particular Dunric. He reminded them that any situation involving Dunric is likely to involve a significant amount of deaths. Wulfhere said he did not get the sense the leæches were involved. He thought they would not need to poison someone to commit murder and were unlikely to be so secretive about it. They preferred to be ostentatious and very public in their killings. Bairre the Priest could be involved because Christian’s like to sow discord as they had all seen in Dumnonia. Dunstan said that Bairre had been writing runes in a book and was clearly a powerful sorcerer. Uthric asked what they thought about Mildburh’s information and wondered if the craftsperson that Brithwen met could have been an Īsernsmiþ. Wulfhere said that he could not tell for sure but the one thing he did know was that, the more information they got, the more complexities and more possibilities arose. He said his head hurt with overthinking.
When Dunstan left the Hall, he noticed Bairre standing and staring at Meire. She was teaching her children the names of flowers and herbs that she had placed on a table. Bairre was making magical symbols with his hand and muttering under his breathe. When he noticed Dunstan, he said that he had been unaware that the Sais had sunk so far into evil as to allow a brùnaidh6 to live amongst them and in doing so they would imperil his and others’ souls. He said that this woman was obviously a fae, and she needed to be exercised. He thought it had likely been her that had murdered his comrade, Iola, and taken his blood for her foul and idolatrous sacrifices. Dunstan said that Meire was his brother’s wife and she had not been known to sacrifice people. He thought, if young Hrothgar was to be believed, that it was better not to mention that she seemed to have a propensity to burst into flames because that might annoy Bairre more. Dunstan said that he was dismayed by Bairre’s news and asked what had happened. Bairre said that they had found Iola this morning and he had had his throat slit and every drop of blood had been drained from him. He had then been pinned to a tree with a spear point. He blamed the fae woman and was going to speak to Wæcla about Iola’s death to demand justice.
Wulfhere and Uthric were sitting together talking but listening to what was happening in the Hall. Both thought that there was a connection between Aelle and his desire to become more influential in Mierce. They were eavesdropping on Wæcla’s discussion with Iænbeorht while trying to look like they were minding their own business. There were two interesting pieces of information overheard. Wæcla and Iænbeorht discussed a possible treaty with Aelle to preserve the peace. Iænbeorht was keen for a deal to maintain the peace and allow the people to recover from ruinous wars, poor harvests and illness. However, they could not agree and Wæcla thought that they needed to negotiate from a position of power with Kings like Aelle. Wæcla brought up that he was also worried about Sceirhead’s recent attitude and his continual questioning of his authority. Iænbeorht said that they both knew Sceirhead was a hothead and his diplomacy was usually carried out with a spear. Wæcla said that he hoped Sceirhead would develop some sense of composure that did not involve always killing people.
Wulfhere was worried about Wæcla’s proposal for an alliance with Aelle. He felt this was how Aelle spread his influence by using intimidation and a threat of violence and he was certain that Cerdic would not be pleased with this development. Uthric thought Cerdic’s anger would be because he hadn’t thought of it first but he was thinking that taking Sceirhead down a notch would not be a bad thing for Wæcla’s authority. They were both surprised and amused when the Priest, Bairre made an appearance to complain about the murder of Iola, his comrade, who he claimed had been sacrificed by a devil. Uthric was not so amused that Bairre accused Meire of being a demon and that Wæcla needed to do something about her. Wulfhere had to restrain him from threatening violence in the Hall and breaking Wæcla’s peace. Bairre said that he was going to sit outside Wæcla’s Hall and go on hunger strike to shame Wæcla until the murderer was punished. Wæcla tried to appease Bairre but he was not in the mood to be placated.
Wulfhere suggested to Uthric that to take his mind off Bairre he might want to talk to the Īsernsmiþan about the person Brithwen had met in the herb garden. Uthric thought he might benefit from time away from the atmosphere in the Hall. He spoke with Tancred, one of the Īsernsmiþan, who was unusually talkative. The news on Īsernsmiþanstræt was that Mercheld, one of their number, had the day before decided to leave and go to Lundenwic. Tancred was under the impression that Mercheld had not planned the move and it was a quick decision. There had been a lot of speculation as to the cause and some gossip about falling out with Brithwen. Tancred dismissed the gossip as he thought it unlikely Mercheld would know the Cyninge other than by sight. He did say that Mercheld had been at odds with Wæcla because last year his son had been killed by Scænwulf, Wæcla’s eldest son, over an argument about a horse. Mercheld had thought that the wergild was not enough and had made his thoughts known to anyone who would listen. Uthric thanked Tancred for the information and left to see Meire and to make sure that her brother was still guarding her. He was not pleased about Bairre’s threats against her.
The Hrothgarson’s mood was subdued that night as they ate their evening meal in Wæcla’s Hall. Their mood seemed to infect the nearby benches and spread to the other people present as the night wore on. People spoke in low voices and there was not much laughter. The door was opened suddenly and a blast of cold night air silenced the Hall. Sceirhead came into the Hall with about ten of the Huscarls. He was still in armour and armed. Gold shone at his throat and wrist. Wæcla asked why he had come dressed for war and had broken the peace of his Hall.
Sceirhead threw a sack on the King’s table which fell open and said to Wæcla that he had solved his problem with the miners. Inside the sack were severed heads. Wæcla was furious and said that he had not had a problem with any miners and Sceirhead would need to pay wergild for the dead with his new gold jewellery. Sceirhead drew his sword and would have moved toward the King if some of the warriors who, although unarmed, pushed Sceirhead and his men away from the King. Uthric drew his seax and taking a shield from the wall moved in between Sceirhead and the King. Sceirhead did not hesitate but attacked Uthric. The fight was unequal and Uthric could not land a significant blow or when he did Sceirhead’s armour turned his seax. Sceirhead wounded Uthric in the arm and leg which convinced Uthric that this was not going to end well. Sceirhead was a skilful and capable warrior and even fully armoured Uthric would have struggled against him.
Dunstan had taken a shield from the wall of the Hall and Wulfhere had picked up a shield from a wounded warrior. Both ran to help Uthric. Uthric had jumped backwards but was bleeding from his wounds. Others were now running to engage the rebel warriors and although Sceirhead himself was keen to land a killing blow on Uthric, they began to withdraw in case they were overwhelmed. Someone threw a javelin at Wæcla when he was organising the defence and he did not see its flight until too late. It caught him in the chest and the force knocked him backwards. There was a momentary lull in the battle as the enormity of what had just happened sank in. Dunstan and several others reacted first and went to see if Wæcla was still alive, shielding him from further thrown weapons. Wulfhere picked himself off the floor. He had tried to parry a spear thrust, slipped on a discarded bowl and collided with a Hall post, hurting his ribs. When he got to Uthric, Uthric was bandaging his own wounds and lamenting that his good tunic was now ripped and covered in blood, not all of it his own.
Wæcla was still alive but gravely wounded. Someone had staunched the wound but the pool of blood beneath him suggested that he had lost a lot of blood. He was barely conscious and his men were calling for a leæch. Uthric volunteered to look at Wæcla because he had some experience with battlefield wounds. The loyal Huscarls were reluctant and voiced their concerns that Uthric could be in league with Sceirhead and seek to kill the King. They were over-ruled by Heremann, one of the senior Huscarls who pointed out, without attention, Wæcla was likely to die anyway and Uthric was the only one with some level of skill. Uthric packed the wound with herbs he asked the Kitchen maids to bring from the herb garden and the bleeding was stopped by tight badages. Wæcla was still unconscious but Uthric said he could do no more and Wæcla now had to battle to stay in Miðgarðr or go on his journey to Neorxanwang.
Some of Sceirhead’s warriors had been wounded and had been left behind when Sceirhead made his escape. They were keen to avoid death by hanging and willing to talk to Heremann. They told him that Cissa had given Sceirhead gold to kill Wæcla but they were certain that he had not poisoned him. They said that Sceirhead would rather stick a spear in someone while looking him in the eyes and he thought the use of poison beneath him. Heremann thought there was truth in their words and ordered that the captured warriors were executed by beheading rather than being hanged as criminals. The information helped Heremann understand why Sceirhead had turned on his King but did not help in the mystery about Wæcla’s poisoning.
Iænbeorht and Heremann discussed what they needed to do to secure the Kingdom. Iænbeorht asked for scouts and warriors to be sent after Sceirhead but it was clear he had left the city. A search of his sleeping quarters found gold buried in the earth floor and the suspicion was that this was some of the gold he had been given to kill Wæcla. The Aethling, Scænwulf wanted to take over from his father but both Iænbeorht and Heremann told him that while he was still alive, Wæcla was still the Wæclingascyning. If Wæcla died then the next King would be a decision for the Moot. Iænbeorht reminded Scænwulf that the Wæclingas had no tradition of passing on Kingship from father to son. The only thing that was decided was that Heremann was elected by the loyal Huscarls to be the new Chief Huscarl. The Huscarls would not willingly follow Iænbeorht and Scænwulf, while liked by the Huscarls, was too young and unproven in such an emergency.
Uthric asked Heremann if he could see Ealhwyn to make sure she was not hurt. Uthric hoped to persuade her to leave in the confusion of Wæcla’s wounding but she declined. She thought the Miercian Confederation more important than her own safety and that she might be better to take her chances when Wæcla recovered. Uthric said he wondered what might have happened to her if Wæcla had died or perhaps if he now died of his wounds. She said she would not think of such things.
Dunstan and Wulfhere were trying to make sense of what happened. The suddenness of the violence had been unexpected and the potential difficulties for the kingdom were huge should Wæcla die. Dunstan said that he would be keen to leave and get back to the relative safety of their own Halls. He was disappointed with Ealhwyn’s answer when Uthric returned to his brothers to tell them of her response. Uthric said that the thing he could not get out of his mind was that he still wondered how Dunric was involved in events. The violence and death were his trademarks particularly when friends fight each other.
They sat in the Hall and tried to work out what had happened and what they should do about it but only tied themselves in knots going over old ground and old theories. Uthric said that he found it interesting that Brithwen had not been prominent in the Hall and he wondered what she was doing. The answer came when Mildburh brought them some ale. She told them that Brithwen was with Wæcla making sure that he had everything he needed. Mildburh also told Dunstan that she had reconsidered her earlier words, and if he still wanted to sleep with her that would be a good thing. Dunstan said that he was honoured by her offer but would have to gently refuse. He told a tearful Mildburh that he was always faithful to his wife. Uthric smiled when Dunstan told him what had passed between the two and said that Dunstan needed to behave himself with women in future. He thought it was not a good thing to upset the serving women as they might die of thirst if they refused to serve any more ale.
In the morning there was no further news. Some said that Wæcla had died during the night because they had heard the wails of mourning women. The rumour spread to the point where Heremann had to tell the Hall that Wæcla, while still unable to talk, was still alive and that his fever had broken overnight, which was a good sign. A messenger came from the warriors who had been sent after Sceirhead saying that they had tracked him to close to Aeglesburgh but had not dared to go any further as they were in Cissa’s lands. They would watch and hope to catch Sceirhead if he left the safety of the city.
The Hall was still in a sombre mood and men mostly ate or drank in silence. The quiet was interrupted by shouting from outside. The noise made the men in the Hall look for weapons. The doors burst open and six men in armour strode in. Uthric recognised Wlencig, Atheling of the Cantaware and thought that the Atheling’s entrance might get interesting. Wlencig demanded to know of Iænbeorht where his wife was being kept and, when he did not answer, threatened him with violence. The warriors in the Hall were silent despite this being the second time in as many days that Wæcla’s peace had been broken, even though Dunstan noted that they were drawing their seaxs but keeping them hidden under the benches.
Heremann tried to restore some semblance of propriety by asking Wlencig to formally introduce himself and state his business. Wlencig’s response was to threaten to take out Heremann’s eyes with hot needles if he did not keep quiet. The situation might have got out of hand as Wulfhere noticed several of Heremann’s warriors go to get their weapons, but Brithwen, who had been standing in the shadows, asked Wlencig to refrain from violence and she would tell him where to find his wife. Wulfhere thought that Wlencig was still considering violence when he suddenly bowed to the Cyninge and asked her pardon for the interruption. He said he had been abrupt because he had heard that his wife had been imprisoned and that he was keen to find out the truth of the matter. Brithwen graciously accepted his apology and said that she believed the Lady Ealhwyn was in a side room.
Wlencig took his men down the side passage and Uthric thought he might go after them to see what would happen but sounds of fighting and yells of pain discouraged his idea. It was only a few heartbeats later when Wlencig reappeared in the main Hall. He was followed by only two of his men and both were wounded probably fatally judging by the way they staggered. Dunstan was sure that Wlencig did not seem to be injured but he had lost his helmet and Wulfhere thought there was a look of terror on his face. He remarked to Dunstan that something horrible must have happened because he had seen Wlencig in Shieldwalls and he was always calm. Uthric said he suspected that one of his wife’s brothers might be the cause of his terror but the passageway was silent.
No-one could say for sure where the three hooded figures had come from. Afterwards there was much debate if they had been in the Hall all along as none of the guards had seen them pass the door. Wulfhere said that they might have come in because nobody’s attention had been on the door from the moment Wlencig and his men had gone down the passage. Two of the hooded men threw backed their hoods, lifted their heads to the roof and howled. Uthric recognised the leæches, Snyring and Nægel. Their cries were answered by half seen spirit shapes that looked like giant wolves and that had begun to circle the Hall. Where they touched human flesh, they left a chill like that of the grave. The crowd in the Hall moved as far back against the wall as possible trying to make themselves small and unseen. Some of the wolf shapes had enough material form to rip the sturdy benches and toss them aside.
The central figure was still hooded and he stared at Wlencig who was on his knees at the feet of the figure. The cloaked figure threw back his hood and light gleamed off his single eye while blackness gaped from the other. The figure screamed. It was an unearthly pitch that jarred everyone who heard it and at the same time he raised his hands and flame jumped from the central fire pit to his hands. He slowly lowered his hands and fire engulfed Wlencig’s head which burst into flames.
The Aethling of Cantaware died horribly and painfully while the one-eyed man howled at a pitch that hurt human ears. Snyring continued howling and pointed at the door of the Hall. Spirit wolves gathered in a pack around him and bounded toward the door which burst its hinges outwards. Screams and ripping sounds were heard and people would not go to investigate for fear that they might meet a grisly fate too. As suddenly as the leæches appeared they left. Dunstan recognised the one-eyed leæch as Dunric and said afterwards that he was sure Dunric grinned at him as he left. Uthric said that he had not particularly liked Wlencig but he did not deserve a death like that. Wulfhere said that deserved or not he was not keen to be in Verulamacæster as there would be consequences to Dunric’s actions and he for one was not keen to see them.
Heremann restored some semblance of order and threw a cloak over Wlencig’s body. Uthric said that now might be a good time to see if Ealhwyn was still alive and said he would make it his business to find out. He went down the side passage, stepping over the bodies of three of Wlencig’s guard and nodded to Meire’s brother, who did not respond. Ealhwyn was against the back wall of the room guarding herself with a meat knife. She visibly relaxed when she saw Uthric and said that she thought the fighting outside had been men sent to kill her by Wæcla. Uthric said that he thought that was unlikely as Wæcla could presently not issue any orders as he was either dying or possibly dead already. He told her that she was also a widow and her husband’s body lay in the main Hall. Ealhwyn said that she needed to understand this in detail and followed Uthric to the main Hall. No-one tried to stop her and no-one said anything about her release as she asked questions about the events. She ordered the serving women to take Wlencig’s body and wash it in preparation to be sent to his father. She then went to find Wæcla. Wulfhere wondered if the ease at which she had left her prison and none had challenged her was because Meire’s brother had been standing one pace behind her with a drawn and bloody sword. Uthric said that he believed Wulfhere to be correct as he would not be keen to challenge his wife’s brother.
Dunstan had ventured outside and had found a body, who he assumed was Bairre mac Guilla, torn asunder by the spirt wolves. Dunstan said that he thought Christianity would have to wait a while to gain a foothold in Mierce. The mission to Verulamacæster and the shrine on the Hill outside the city appeared to have ended abruptly and bloodily.
By the morning Heremann with the help of Wulfhere, as a ranking Ealdorman, had organised the cleaning of the Hall and removed the dead. Heremann had sent for Iænbeorht who had not been seen since the night before. The messenger returned with the news that, in all the confusion, Iænbeorht had left during the night with his guard and a pack horse. Heremann sent warriors to search Iænbeorht’s hall in the hope of understanding his disappearance. Snyring the leæch also came to the Hall. He stood silently for a long time looking at the destruction as people moved away from him. He then told Heremann that he had completed a sacrifice and the Lady Ealhwyn was to remain free as she was not guilty of the poisoning. Heremann asked if Ealhwyn was not guilty could the leæce tell him who he should blame but Snyring did not respond. Wulfhere advised Heremann that he should let the matter drop for the moment.
With Ealhwyn’s release from her captivity, Uthric sought to convince Meire that they should go before the weather became too difficult to travel. In truth, Uthric had discussed with his brothers that the situation was becoming very dangerous and Wulfhere was concerned that their continued presence might upset the balance of power in Aelle’s eyes, particularly since his son had just been killed. Meire was reluctant to leave but said that she would go with Uthric as their time together would be short. Uthric asked her what she meant by short and wanted to know if she had some premonition about his death. Meire said she had not had a premonition but a summoning. She told him that she had spent seven years as his wife and their time would soon be over. She would return with him for a short while to Pontes to see that the children were safe, that much had been granted. Uthric said he was confused and wanted to know who had summoned her. Meire said it was her father, Tannatar, also known as the Lord of the Hollows and it was a summons she could not refuse. She told him the summons had been the real reason her brothers, Horith and Ardreth, had come to her. Uthric said that he did not like this news but Meire kissed him and said that all things must end.
Dunstan had gone out of the Hall and his attention was attracted by a crowd of people gathered around a building. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd to where Nægel was standing with a smile on his face. Bairre’s remaining scribe had been nailed to a wall of the building. Nægel asked Dunstan if he approved. Dunstan did not answer Nægel’s question but instead asked what the leæches were hoping for with all this death and killing. Nægel told Dunstan that events in the Spirit world were more important than in Miðgarðr. Leæches were always trying to overcome and destroy the spirits left behind by the Britons and as Dunstan no doubt recognised this was not an easy task. Death was just a transition for leæches and Dunstan should not concern himself with the deaths. Those that died still lived in the spirit world. However, the killing released power for those that could use it to overcome powerful enemy spirits. Nægel said that the death of a King’s son caused a formidable release of power. Nægel asked Dunstan about Meire’s children and if the halflings would be going to Pontus or with Meire. Dunstan said that he was not aware that the two were different. He said that he did not like Nægel’s question but the leæch just smiled at him.
The Hrothgarsons left Verulamacæster that afternoon. Uthric would not stay when Dunstan told him what Nægel had said. He discussed letting Orin ap Brinn foster the children as a way of keeping them away from the leæches. Dunstan said he thought that Orin should be warned of the danger and see if he could get a Druid to help protect the boys. Meire said that they would be safe as she would ensure they were hidden. Uthric said he could be satisfied with that.
When they got home, Wulfhere travelled to Wincen Cæster to meet with Cerdic and told him of the news of their travels. Cerdic said that they had done well and that if Wæcla survived his injury, he was unlikely to side with Aelle in the future. He thought Cissa had gambled on the throwboard and lost. Cerdic said that it was plain for all to see there were dangers in gambling. He told Wulfhere that if Wæcla needed support he was to give it to him, but help should always be covert rather than given openly. He did not want to provoke the peace treaty yet.
- (1) Beorsceale is a cupbearer
- (2) Boldweard is a household steward
- (3) Īsernsmiþ is an ironsmith
- (4) Lēoþwyrhta is a poet
- (5) Hlafweard is a Reeve or Steward
- (6) Brùnaidh is Scottish Gallic for one of the Fae