It was the third year since Cerdic declared himself Westseaxacyning. Aelle had been the Cantacyning for eighteen years and it was eighth year since he had named himself Brytenwealda. Guercha One-eye the Angelcyning was still disputing Aelle's claim to be Brytenwealda for the past three years.
It had been a hard, cold winter and food was short. Hretha had the land in her grip for longer than even the oldest people could remember. The Tamyse was often frozen and people huddled round fires telling stories of the summer. Sol-monath was late because the snows fell after Yule and stayed until The Festival of Hretha. Wulfhere led the sacrifices at the festival to placate the Winter goddess of Death but people said she rejected the offerings. Winter was hard on the animals and despite picking the best possible sacrifices the goddess did not seem satisfied. She took many of the older and weaker people too.
Offa was pleased with his new batch of ale which at Dunstan’s prompting he had called Anvil Ale and he thought he should serve it at the Yule festival to help cheer the people up.
The Hrothgarsons had managed to travel to Wincen Cæster for Cerdic’s Yule festival. Cerdic was in fine form. He had spent the year consolidating his lands and allocating land to new settlers. Westsæxe was the only kingdom that was not at war and Cerdic’s lands had benefited from the peace. There had been the usual border skirmishes with Dumnonia but other than some burnt farms there had been no change in the borders. Stuf advocated strongly for a war with Dumnonia this coming year. He said that his spies had reported the Britons had been fighting amongst themselves and they had weakened each other. He thought it was time to strike for the Sæfern sea and split the British kingdoms in two. Cerdic disagreed and said that although he acknowledged that there had been fighting in the far west, his spies had also reported that the Bear had been victorious and he had been elected Brytenwealda by the other British tribes. Therefore, it would be likely that an attempt to reach the Sæfern Sea would mean fighting just not Dumnonia but other British kingdoms who would come to the defence of the Brytenwealda. He said that he intended to try and split the tribes and conclude peace treaties with Gwent and possibly send another embassy to Kernow.
Cissa had been fighting in the north advancing against the Chilternsæte and Wæclingas and the repercussions of Wæcla’s poisoning and Wlencig’s gruesome death were yet to be seen. There had been skirmishes between the joint forces of the Chilternsæte and Wæclingas and Cissa of Aeglesburgh over the blame for Wlencig’s death and the poisoning of Wæcla but no outright battles. War would be expected after the crops are planted. Gwent had moved spearmen into Spinæ and Brige and had built Burghs on the west side of the Tamyse to protect their lands from Cissa and the Miercians.
It was reported that Aelle intended to raise his army and go north. Cerdic had already given Wulfhere instructions to aid Wæcla covertly but not enough to provoke Aelle into breaking the peace treaty. He was clear he was not ready for another war. There was not really any surprise when the news reached Wincen Cæster that Wæcla had divorced Brithwen and had married Ealhwyn Hrofsdotter.
The news from the Angles was more comforting. Guercha One-eye had tried to capture Colnacæster but had been defeated by Sæberht Ingwaldson, the Upplingascyning in a battle near Colnacæster. Sæberht had mobilised the East Saxon tribes of the Hæmele, Vange, Denge and Ginges and the Angles had been routed.
On the way back north, the Hrothgarsons stopped at Taddenlæge to talk with Tadda about the affairs in the area. Uthric went to talk to Orin and to see his children. Wulfhere also saw his children but they were unsure who he was, which upset him as he still was annoyed that Bronwyn had not chosen him. He spoke at length to Tadda and Rowena about the situation. Rowena said that he should get remarried and said that her widowed daughter would make an excellent wife and the children already spent a lot of time with her. Wulfhere said that he had a lot of things to do this year and marriage was not one of the things he had considered but he said that he would give some thought to Rowena’s suggestion after midsummer.
On the return home, Wulfhere summoned the people for the first Moot of the year. He said that since there had been peace for a while that taxes would be returned to normal. There was some grumbling but most accepted that if the harvest was good they should have plenty of food to feed the people with more to spare. Cwen had asked Wulfhere to agree to hold a weekly market in Pontes. She thought that because it was at the crossroads of the Tamyse and they would benefit if trade came through. Wulfhere said that he thought it might lower the tax burden on the people over time and gave her money to set up what was needed.
Beorthric wanted to know if Wulfhere would expand his lands to bring in more sheep. He thought that there might be a greater need as more people came north to settle and the market would help create more demand. Wulfhere agreed that he would give him a further three hydes of land that were too poor for farming. Cwen had already discussed building larger brewing houses with Offa and they agreed that setting up a Merchant’s Inn would help to create a bigger attraction. Offa had been pleased that his Anvil Ale had been enjoyed at Yule and had other ideas for different flavours using seasonal herbs. Cwen agreed that she would supervise the building of Wulfhere’s Hall as she said even she was frustrated about his tardiness in getting it finished. Wulfhere was keen that the Hall would be the administrative centre for his lands and a focal point for the people.
After the Spring festival when the people lit bonfires and drew water from the wells and springs to help with healing the sick, Aelle came to find Wulfhere. He arrived at dusk with fifty mounted warriors. He was keen to hear from witnesses who had been present at his son’s death. Wulfhere thought Aelle looked older and more worn by his recent troubles. He rarely smiled when talking and seemed short tempered with his men. He was polite with the Hrothgarsons and did not offer any offence or hostility.
Wulfhere said that he had been present when Wlencig had come to Wæcla’s Hall looking for his imprisoned wife Ealhwyn, who Wæcla had accused of poisoning him. Wæcla had been badly injured by his chief Huscarl, Sceirhead, and was possibly dying at the time and was not present in the Hall when Wlencig arrived. Wlencig had intimidated Iænbeorht, Wæcla’s Boldweard, and had tried to force his way into Ealhwyn’s rooms but he and his bodyguards were forced back into the main hall by the guard on Ealhwyn’s door. It was then Wlencig was attacked by the leæch, Dunric. Aelle was keen to know if this was the same leæch that had been responsible for so many deaths in Cædering and had set a Déaþscufa loose on the people of the region. Wulfhere confirmed that it was and said he thought that Dunric might have wanted the power that killing Wlencig would have released for appeasing spirits.
Uthric told the story of how Sceirhead had tried to kill Wæcla and how it had been said that he had been paid by Cissa. Aelle wanted to know if Sceirhead could also have been in league with Dunric but Uthric said he did not believe this was possible because the leæches had healed Wæcla. Aelle asked how Ealhwyn was involved in events and what had been her part in the death of his son. Uthric said that he did not think she was involved in the killing and she had prepared Wlencig’s body to return to his father. He did not think it wise to mention she had not been over concerned by Wlencig’s death or her admission to him that she was Wæcla’s lover. Aelle had heard that she had since married Wæcla and said that he considered her to be somehow involved with Wlencig’s death. He said that he would give 20,000 silver for Dunric’s head. He said he considered Wæcla and Ealhwyn as his enemies.
Aelle asked if he could stay the night and Wulfhere said that he would be honoured although he was concerned that the King’s men would eat much of his winter stores. Wulfhere was using Dunstan’s Hall to host Aelle because his own was still being constructed and could not host anyone while it remained unfinished. Dunstan’s Hall was also still unfinished and was still lacking ornamentation and decorations that people expected from a Þegn. However, the Hall was serviceable and the biggest building in Pontes but could not hold all Aelle’s men and some stayed in Hambladensted or Farnhamble. Aelle drank a considerable amount of Offa’s ale but instead of becoming more morose, he cheered up and spoke at length with Offa about brewing. Nevertheless, the Hrothgarsons were relieved when he left to cross the Tamyse in the morning and travelled toward Aeglesburgh.
Aelle had only left a few days before the guards told Wulfhere that a noble woman and her guards had come across the bridge from the north side of the Tamyse. Wulfhere and Cwen had been trying to estimate how much food they would need to redistribute to ensure the people did not go hungry. He was not happy that another noble had come to Pontes which would require use of more precious resources. He went to seek the news and to find out what had prompted a visit. He was surprised to see Brithwen, the former Wæclingascyninge, in Dunstan’s Hall. He greeted her and gave her the title of Cyninge but she reproved him and said that he might not have heard the news but that she was no longer a Queen. Wulfhere offered her hospitality but she declined any feast. She said she would only stay one night and leave early in the morning to travel to Wincen Cæster as she desired to speak with Cerdic. Brithwen asked for a private room as she did not think it was appropriate nor did she feel capable of a public appearance. Wulfhere was surprised but did not say anything. He said that Cwen would come and see to her needs.
In the morning Brithwen left with her five guards and pack horses. Cwen told Wulfhere that Brithwen had not spoken much. She had not said why she sought out Cerdic and Cwen could not get any of her guards to talk. Wulfhere thought that she would seek Cerdic’s protection. She could not have gone to Aelle as he would have used her presence for his own purposes against Wæcla. Seeking protection from Guercha One-eye would have been equally dangerous as he had not forgiven the Miercians for taking the land that he considered his.
On the day that Brithwen left, Tathere the fisherman came to Uthric with another man, called Oscytel, to say that the fishermen were upset with some recent events and had come to ask his advice. Tathere showed him two bodies. One was one of the fishermen and the other was a white body of what looked like a man. Tathere said that the dead fisherman and Oscytel had been clearing the fish traps earlier that morning. There had been a heavy river mist, which was not unusual for the time of year, when a war boat had suddenly come out of the mist and hit the stationary fishing boat. Oscytel had been knocked into the river but Byrnheard had been able to hold on to the sides of the boat which had proved to be his death. One of the warriors in the war boat had speared him.
Uthric looked at the body and there was an obvious spear thrust to his throat which had likely killed the fisherman. Uthric asked where the war boats had gone but Oscytel said that he was unsure as he was trying not to be seen because he had not been keen to suffer the same fate as Byrnheard. However, from their direction of travel, he believed they may have gone up the Cœln. He had seen five boats crammed with warriors with white bulls on their shields.
Uthric looked at the other body but did not touch it. It was a white man. He had no apparent colour. His hair, skin and staring eyes were white. Uthric asked Tathere if anyone had seen such a creature before. He was hesitant to call the creature a man. Tathere said that this was the first such creature he had seen and he hoped that he would not see another. Uthric ordered them to burn both it and the net that it was entangled in away from the settlements. He said he would give them money to replace the net. Uthric asked the fishermen to keep an eye on the river and he would give them more instructions later when he talked to Wulfhere.
Uthric went to find Wulfhere and was surprised to find him talking with the Ealdorman Hrof. Hrof greeted Uthric and asked for the news. Uthric was reluctant to tell him what the fishermen had said and showed him but was happy to tell Hrof how he had found his wife. Hrof said that he was glad that their search had ended and Meire had returned. Hrof said that he was travelling north to support Aelle at Aeglesburgh but had stopped in his journey to discuss his daughter, Ealhwyn. He had heard some concerning reports of events in Verulamacæster and was keen to hear the Hrothgarsons’ opinions. He said that in truth Aelle would question him about Ealhwyn and he needed to be certain about the answers. Hrof told them that they should not spare his feelings or hold back information for fear of offending him. He said that he thought that Ealhwyn was endangering the peace by her actions and he did not have a good feeling about what was going to happen.
Dunstan said that from their observation, Wæcla and the Miercians were creating a defensive confederation to protect themselves against Aelle, Guercha and Cerdic. He thought also that if the Miercians and Angles were going to fight each other then they would not be fighting south of the Tamyse. Wulfhere said that Wæcla had stressed that the confederation was defensive and would not be offensive unless provoked. He said that Ealhwyn had told him that she had been convinced by her cousin, Sæberht, the Upplingascyning, that she should be part of the confederation. She had met with Wæcla and they seemed to have formed a closer pact by becoming lovers.
Hrof said that he had heard that this was so. He said he regretted that he had insisted that she had married Wlencig as it was a political, but also a particularly joyless, union. The two were opposite in personality and Ealhwyn had despised Wlencig. Hrof asked about Iænbeorht and Brithwen and how they had been involved in the unfolding events. Uthric said that it was likely that Iænbeorht was Cissa’s spy and agent. He had left suddenly when Wlencig had been killed by the leæches so they had not had a chance to question him. Wulfhere said that there was no evidence that Brithwen had been involved in the deaths or attempted murders. He did not think it was wise to mention that Brithwen had gone to Cerdic.
Hrof thanked them for their insights and said that he had to try and think how he would deal with Aelle and his anger. He said his other problem would be what to do with Ealhwyn when she was captured. Hrof went off to see to his men and horses and Uthric took the opportunity to tell Wulfhere what the fishermen had told him.
Dunstan and Wulfhere were dubious about the story of war boats on the river. No-one else had seen them and Dunstan said that the fishermen were not truthful. He thought it likely that it was an internal feud about fishing rights and they were only trying to cover up a murder. Uthric said that he thought that could be the case. He said that they might remember the white bull shield was Cœlfrith’s which was a strange thing because they had heard that he had been killed by Aelle. Wulfhere said that they should not take chances and told Uthric to raise the Fyrd. He thought that they should find out if there were five boatloads of hostile warriors on the Tamyse and be prepared. Dunstan said he would talk to Tathere and put the fear of the gods into him to make him tell the truth.
Uthric gathered 50 men and took them as far as Duromagus but could not find anyone who could tell him of war boats on the Tamyse. He took a boat and visited his friend Eadweald at Cescwin but Eadweald said that he had not had reports of hostile warriors. When he returned to Pontes, Hrof had left and gone north. Hrof had discussed the building of Wulfhere’s Hall with Cwen and Wulfhere. He had given advice on what Wulfhere should include and promised that he would send two tapestries from Friesland to put on the walls.
The Hrothgarsons were discussing what they should do next when news arrived that Cerdic was coming to talk to Wulfhere. Wulfhere said that he was surprised that suddenly Pontes had come to be the centre of the world. In a short space all the Kings and Hrof had visited him. He wondered if Guercha One-eye might be next.
Cerdic greeted them and asked them for the news. Cerdic said that he was interested in seeing how they had been getting on with building the fortifications. Cwen had told him that they had struggled to get Stonemasons and people capable of building and he had been pleased to help out. He said he thought he might offer his advice as he had recently finished the fortifications in Wincen Cæster and had become quite an expert in building. Cerdic looked at the bridge and asked if they might have thought about pulling down the towers on the far side in case there are hostile forces on the opposite bank and therefore deny anyone a strong position to attack south Pontes. He said they should be careful about destroying the bridge when taking the towers down as no-one was capable of building such an impressive bridge since the Romans left.
When Wulfhere looked confused about Cerdic’s talk of building, he said that he was really interested that Hrof and Aelle had spent time in Pontes and asked their opinion of events. Wulfhere told Cerdic that Aelle had been asking about the death of his son which he wanted to blame on the Wæclingas. Cerdic was interested in the motives of Wæcla and his usefulness as an ally against Aelle. Wulfhere said that in both conversation and observation of Wæcla, he held true to his principle of being part of a defensive coalition rather than expansionist but he agreed with Cerdic that Ealhwyn Hrofsdotter was a conundrum. Cerdic had already asked Wulfhere to covertly support Wæcla and he repeated his views that they should support, advise and trade with the Wæclingas but ensure that any active co-operation was deniable. Wulfhere said that he would do his best.
Cerdic said that a fisherman had asked him for an audience and had spoken about his concern about five warships on the Tamyse. Cerdic asked if Wulfhere had heard this news. Dunstan said that the fishermen were not always truthful and they seemed to be working to their own agenda. He said they had spent days and considerable resources looking for boats but there had been no evidence they actually existed. There had been a body of a dead fisherman but no-one other than one fisherman had seen the boats. He said both he and Uthric had concluded that the fishermen were lying again. He proceeded to tell Cerdic of the previous incident that nearly broke the truce with Aelle. Cerdic acknowledged that the Hrothgarsons had done well.
Cerdic stayed the night and although he spoke little at the feast, Wulfhere noted that Cerdic took in everything that went on and often asked pointed questions about events. In the morning Cerdic asked about the people living between the Wey and the Æmon and who they owed allegiance to. Wulfhere said that the land was mostly marsh and the peoples living there were living between Hrof’s lands and their own. Cerdic asked Wulfhere to talk to the people and get them to swear fealty to him. He thought the land would be useful in the future should it come to a war with Aelle. Wulfhere was glad that he left in the morning to go South as he did not believe they would have enough food until the harvest if he had to continue to host Kings.
Wulfhere was still grumbling about the food he had to use for the Kings but both Dunstan and Uthric began planning to visit the lands from the Wey to the Æmon. Uthric thought that they should take 50 men as a show of force to the inhabitants but Dunstan had the view that force was not necessary because they needed to persuade people rather than threaten them. Wulfhere, when he finally paid attention to the conversation, agreed with Dunstan and they agreed 25 warriors would be sufficient.
Wulfhere said that he had been thinking about a design for his shield. He thought that he had been remiss in not deciding this earlier because as an Ealdorman he had the right to have his own design but it also showed others of his power. Dunstan suggested that he should use a squirrel design because there seemed an overabundance of the curious creatures in their lands. Wulfhere said that he had been thinking of something more frightening such as fýrdraca1 or a heoruwearh2and that few people would consider a squirrel to be a creature that provoked fear in his enemies. He thought that a black wolf would be an appropriate symbol for his men. Uthric said the difficulty might be actually drawing it on the shield but if he also had a black background then the drawing would not matter. Wulfhere ignored his suggestion and decided that he would have a black raven on a red shield.
In the end Wulfhere decided only to take 15 warriors with him in his trip to the Æmon. He was concerned that while they did not trust the truth of what the fishermen had said, there needed to be men to respond to any threat and he thought it was better to leave warriors under the command of Halig, his youngest brother.
Wulfhere insisted that his brothers put on their best clothes and that the warriors had their new shields ready and weapons honed as if for war. He also brought some gifts for the local leaders of the marsh people to impress them with his generosity. He said to his brothers that an Ealdorman should be a bēáhġifa3 for it denoted generosity and respect for others. His brothers wondered if Wulfhere was not getting carried away with his power.
Wulfhere asked all those in the district that could come to meeting for he had some important news. There were many families who lived in the area but they were widely separated by marshes and bogs and it took several days to get the meeting organised. Wulfhere had brought some of Offa’s ale and gave it to the folk who gathered before he spoke. He told the people of the changing nature of the north and the recent troubles when Cissa had ravaged the north side of the Tamyse and then the lands between the Wey and the Lodden. He reminded them that they had no Lord to protect them should Aelle begin to covet their lands and invited them to consider what they might do should war break out between the Kings. He said from experience that it was best to be under the protection of one King because there was now no option to be neutral as the people who used to live on the north of the Tamyse found out.
The chief people of the district were impressed by Wulfhere’s speech and even more impressed when he gave them thick silver bracelets. They said they would consider his words carefully and would give him an answer in a few days. They thought that their deliberations might be improved if they were able to drink more of Offa’s fine ale. Dunstan said that he would ensure some was sent as he did not want them to be thirsty if they needed to talk so much. Uthric thought that they could come to the market every midweek and Offa’s ale was always available for those that were thirsty. Several days later, Wulfhere received a delegation from the people of the marshes and all their leading people swore allegiance to Wulfhere. Uthric thought that Offa’s intervention might have been significant in their decision but Dunstan said it was the weekly market that was the main factor. Wulfhere did not offer a view on the matter.
The Hrothgarsons decided that they should seek out Wæcla and tell him of Cerdic’s support. Cwen said it might be a good idea to take him a wedding present but Wulfhere grumbled about the cost of buying a king a present. However, he accepted that it would be a good reason to meet Wæcla. Both Cwen and Æthlind asked for cloth for new dresses if they were travelling through Lundenwic because the market there had expensive cloth from Frankia and Frisia. Æthlind had seen a new style of dress when she was in Wincen Cæster and was keen that she looked her best for when Dunstan’s Hall was finished. Cwen thought they should get some cloth for Ealhwyn too but Uthric thought that she would probably prefer a sword too. Æthlind, who had never met Ealhwyn, said that she thought Uthric’s opinion was unbelievable. Cwen said that Æthlind was maybe right but for the wrong reason. She found a sword difficult after a long period of fighting because of the weight and much preferred a spear. She recommended that Æthlind should join her when next she practiced with the warriors.
At Veralamacæster, they found that Wæcla was not there. He was with the Warband and King Wulfgeat of the Chilternsæte raiding Aelle’s lands. Wulfhere thought they could talk with Ealhwyn, but the Cyninge had also gone to war with Wæcla. Wulfhere asked for a guide to take him to Wæcla because no one could tell him when the King would return and he was not prepared to wait in Verulamacæster.
Wæcla welcomed the Hrothgarsons and introduced them to Wulfgeat, the Chilternsætecyning. Wulfhere told Wæcla that he brought greetings from Cerdic on his hopes for his swift recovery from his injury, congratulations on his recent wedding and that he had brought him a gift for his wedding to Ealhwyn. Wulfhere presented the sword and jewelled scabbard along with a fine gold embroidered blue cloak for Ealhwyn. Wæcla thanked them for the gifts but wanted to know why the Hrothgarsons had really made the journey. He thought that the greetings, well wishes and presents could have waited and yet here they were sitting in a cold camp in the Chiltern Hills. He thought that Wulfhere might have come to tell him something else.
Wulfhere conceded that Wæcla was indeed perceptive and the real reason was to tell him that Cerdic would offer discreet support, should the need arise, and to pass on Hrof’s greetings to his daughter Ealhwyn. Ealhwyn was angry at her father’s message because she had heard that he had come to join Aelle in the north and they were likely to be on opposing sides. Wæcla said he was more amused by Cerdic’s message and wanted to know what Cerdic’s discreet help really meant and importantly what Cerdic wanted from the Wæclingas in return.
Wulfhere addressed Ealhwyn’s anger first and told her that in his opinion her father wanted to know that she was safe. Uthric said that Hrof held her in high regard and that his coming north was because that he was Aelle’s liegeman and Aelle was infuriated by the death of Wlencig. Dunstan said that they had been very clear that Wlencig’s death was due to Dunric and Wlencig’s arrogance rather than the Wæclingas. Wæcla said that he thought these were fine words but the truth was that Aelle was here to destroy the Wæclingas and the Chilternsæte and must be stopped. He was keen to know how many spearmen Wulfhere would give as that is what he most needed at present. Wulfhere said that he would send twenty of his best Warriors north on his return to help with the defence for which Wæcla expressed his gratitude.
Wæcla pressed Wulfhere for Cerdic’s real reason for helping the Mierce for he presumed that Cerdic was not keen for open war with Aelle at present. Wulfhere said that Cerdic was keen for alliances and trade. Uthric reminded everyone that there was a new market in south Pontes and that Mierce merchants would find it a useful way to sell their goods. Wæcla said he was not sure about Cerdic’s real intensions but would take it at face value if Wulfhere swore on what he had said. Wulfhere agreed and they parted in friendship.
As they were leaving, Wæcla took Wulfhere aside and asked him if he had heard any news of Brithwen. Wulfhere chose not to tell him that she had passed through Pontes a moon ago and Wæcla said that he was keen to find out where she was. He told Wulfhere that she had left with the royal treasury and he was keen to find out what had happened. Wulfhere said that he would send a message if she had been found.
When they were traveling Dunstan wondered what they would do if Wæcla asked for more warriors. Uthric said he wasn’t that worried about sending more men as there were always young men looking for fame, glory and war loot. His main concern would be that Aelle would discover their duplicity and he thought this might not go well for them. Wulfhere said he believed they might be in real trouble then.
Dunstan said that they should talk to Hrof about what would happen if Aelle should die or be killed in the fighting. He thought the whole political situation would change rapidly and he still harboured a grudge against Cerdic for not protecting their families. Wulfhere said that speculation was difficult but they should keep their relationship with Hrof cordial.
When they returned to Pontes, the news was that Dunric, Nægel and Snyring had visited Hereweard and all had gone into the forest together. The word was that they were performing a ritual that no doubt involved lots of blood sacrifices to dark powers.
(1) Fýrdraca is a fire dragon
(2) Heoruwearh is a savage, bloody wolf
(3) Bēáhġifa is a Ring-giver, a Lord