ALFRED THE GREAT;

EDWARD THE KING

 

(#10 in the Ambrose series)

By Bruce Corbett

 


 

Copyright © 2013, by Bruce Corbett.

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 


 

This story is a work of fiction. All fictional characters are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is coincidental.

 


 

 

Dedication

Son, you outgrew my lap, but never my heart

.....Author Unknown

 

To Andrew

 


 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

This is the tenth book in the Ambrose historical adventure series and the fourth dealing specifically with King Alfred. In this novel, Alfred dies and his son Edward struggles against his cousin Ethelwold for the throne. When the council of advisors, the Witan, chooses Edward, Ethelwold rebels, seizing two royal estates and kidnapping and marrying a nun. When Edward marches on him, however, Ethelwold flees north, to the Vikings of Jorvik, (Northumbria) who make him king! Within a year, he brings an invasion army of Danes south, to Essex. The Danes of Essex submit, and the following year they combine forces with King Eohric of East Anglia, raid deep into Mercia, and cross over into Wessex. Edward calls up his army and goes after the retreating Danes, pushing north far into East Anglia.

Edward orders his fyrdmen home before the Danes can assemble an overwhelming force, but the Kentish fyrd, off raiding on its own, is slow to follow orders. The Danish army manages to surround it, and a fierce battle ensues, called the Battle of the Holme. Though the Danes keep the field, losses are high on both sides, and the Kentish fyrdmen are able to break free of the trap. Both Eohric, the Viking king of East Anglia, and Ethelwold, are killed in the vicious battle. Finally, Edward is secure on the Wessex throne, though Wessex is exhausted and Edward is eventually forced to sign a peace accord with both East Anglia and Jorvik.

I have absolutely no evidence of an attempted poisoning of King Alfred or of a band of Danes arriving in Dorset before Alfred's death, but Ethelwold was very likely in communication with the Northumbrian Vikings. Although I did find mention in my research of an alliance between Wessex and Scotland, I have no details. It is at least plausible, however, that Edward would want the Scots and Picts (recently united into one nation) to cross their borders into Viking Northumbria and tie down large numbers of Danish warriors that would otherwise be sent south to attack Wessex.

Alfred's funeral is purely a figment of my imagination, but by using the wonders of the internet, I was able to track down several documents describing a little about the coronation ceremony of Anglo-Saxon kings. The quoted material of Edward's coronation is actually copied from a public domain document describing the coronation of the West Saxon king, King Ethelred II, AD. 978. I decided to leave it in the quaint language I found it in, as it reads sonorously and seemed appropriate for the solemnity of the occasion. Since it was my understanding that most West Saxon royal wives, at least in Alfred's time, were not crowned as queens, I left out that portion of the 978 ceremony. When Ethelwulf, father of Alfred, brought back a young princess from the Frankish court and insisted that she be crowned as queen, it seemed to cause a great deal of trouble, which his eldest son used to his advantage when he decided to keep the throne even after his father had returned from the Continent.

My greatest problem with this story was the dates. I used several translations of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and each one used different dates for everything from Alfred's death to the Battle of the Holme. In the end, I picked a version that made sense to me and stuck with it, adjusting the dates from other versions to conform.

Ethelwold's dream was interesting. One historian I read pointed out that if the Witan had chosen him instead of Edward, England might have been united much sooner than it was, and generations of strife might have been avoided. I suspect that it is more likely that the Danes would have quickly achieved dominion over the entire island. Anglo-Saxon puppet kings generally had a short and unhappy reign under Viking masters.

I know that I did not do justice to the history of the north. I was fascinated by the ever-changing fortunes of the northern Britons, the Picts, the Scots, Strathclyde, the kingdom of Dál Riata that straddled the Irish Sea, and the Norse settlers in England. The intricate historical details of the northern kingdoms are not particularly relevant to the story of Wessex as I am telling it, however, so I glossed over the more intricate details concerning Alba. I picked on Blackpool more or less indiscriminately. The maps were very vague about where the southern border of Alba was in 900, so I made an educated guess and picked a town that would be just a little south of that point.

As I am writing this, I am looking at a picture of the ancient coins indicating that the Vikings of Northumbria had chosen Ethelwold as king. They are real, although they do not actually have 'Ethelwold Rex' written on them. I cheated just a little and simplified the quote to avoid a long and distracting explanation.

The Varangian Guard was actually constituted under Basil II, not Basil the 'Bulgarian'. I just moved the process forward by some years.

The ending is as accurate as I can make it, even explaining the approach that Edward would use in later years to conquer what became known as the Danelaw. I did speed things up a little, however. It was not until 906 that Edward was able to arrange a truce with the Danish kingdoms, and the conquest took many more years.

This is really the story of Edward the Elder, how he came to the throne and fought the invading Danes after his father died. Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip, however, will continue to play a major part in the struggles against the Danes of Northumbria and East Anglia.

 

***

 

Some years before this story begins, in 876 A.D., King Guthrum of the Danes invaded the Anglo-Saxon country of Wessex. Trapped at the town of Wareham by Alfred the Great and his West Saxon army, the Viking leader agreed to a truce, but, instead, slipped out and retreated to Exeter. After a Viking rescue fleet was destroyed in a storm, Guthrum was forced to sue for peace and retreated to East Anglia, a country that he and his ravaging Vikings had already conquered.

Just after Christmas 877, Alfred, whose army was disbanded for the winter, was caught by surprise by a second invasion of Guthrum's army. The Saxon king was forced into hiding in the forest of Selwood. Eventually he found his way to Athelney, an island surrounded by marshes. From there, he organized a secret gathering of his fighting men. Meantime, to the west, one of his ealdormen, Odda, destroyed a second Viking army newly arrived from Wales and led by Ubbi Ragnarsson.

A single major defeat could mean the end of Saxon Wessex. All of the Angle, Saxon and Jute kingdoms north of the Thames were reeling or had already crumbled under the Viking onslaught. Alfred's army managed to gather in May, however, and they confronted the Vikings at Edington. Alfred won a great victory and the broken Vikings fled to Chippenham. After a two week siege there, the Danish king, Guthrum, agreed to be baptized and signed a peace treaty with Alfred. Wessex was saved. This story is told in Alfred the Great; Viking Invasion.

In 885, Wessex was threatened by a new enemy. Another Viking army, fresh from France, landed in Kent and besieged the town of Rochester. This is where Alfred the Great; King's Revenge, begins. Guthrum and his powerful army were bound by treaty to stay out of the fight, but his men were ever hungry for more land and adventure. Much of the territory north of the Thames River belonged to Guthrum. If the Viking king joined his forces with the Danes from France, Wessex may have been finally overwhelmed. Alfred arrived with his army before the city fell, and the combined Saxon forces routed the Vikings, who fled precipitously, even leaving behind their entire horse herd.

In the story, Alfred the Great; Young Edward, a Viking alliance brought an unprecedented number of Viking warriors into Wessex. Again and again, Haesten, a Viking pirate leader, invaded Wessex. Again and again, he pillaged, was eventually cornered and besieged, and then managed to break free and retreat to safe territory.

After six years of peace, Alfred is dying. Ethelwold, son of a previous king and passed over in favor of Alfred, raises the standard of revolt. Quickly driven out of Wessex, he is accepted as king in Northumbria (Jorvik) and Alfred the Great; Edward the King, begins.

Individual words in italics generally have special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix I. I hope you enjoy the story.

The author,

Bruce Corbett

 

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INDEX

AUTHOR'S NOTE

INDEX

CAST OF CHARACTERS

CHAPTER 1 Vikings!

CHAPTER 2 Alfred Lies Dying

CHAPTER 3 The Poison

CHAPTER 4 Why Poison?

CHAPTER 5 Cate Is Killed

CHAPTER 6 Ambrose Plans a Trip to King Eohric

CHAPTER 7 "This year died Alfred..."

CHAPTER 8 Urgent News

CHAPTER 9 The Witan Chooses a New King

CHAPTER 10 The Funeral

CHAPTER 11 "Then Prince Ethelwold...rode against"

CHAPTER 12 The Cousins Meet at Wimborne Minster

CHAPTER 13 Ethelwold Flees Wimborne Minster

CHAPTER 14 Ambrose, Polonius, and Edward Meet

CHAPTER 15 Ethelwold Escapes

CHAPTER 16 The Coronation

CHAPTER 17 A Visit from an Old Friend

CHAPTER 18 Alba

CHAPTER 19 Ambrose in Intercepted by Danes

CHAPTER 20 Ambrose Lands in Alba

CHAPTER 21 They Meet the King at a Hunting Lodge

CHAPTER 22 Phillip Teaches a Lesson

CHAPTER 23 The Attack South

CHAPTER 24 Ambrose and Ethelwold Meet in Jorvik

CHAPTER 25 "This year came Ethelwold..."

CHAPTER 26 "This year Ethelwold enticed..."

CHAPTER 27 "King Edward went after..."

CHAPTER 28 "Whereupon the army..."

CHAPTER 29 Sigehelm Closes with the Viking Host

CHAPTER 30 A Truce

Appendix I Glossary

Appendix II Time line

Appendix III Map

Appendix IV The Kings of Wessex

Appendix V About the Author

Appendix VI Other books released by the author

 

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CAST OF CHARACTERS

 

Aella: One of the rival claimants for the throne of Northumbria. The ensuing struggle weakened both rivals so much that the Danes were able to seize the country.

 

Alfred: The younger brother of Ambrose, Ethelbert, and Ethelred. He was an intensely curious man who wished to live the life of a scholar, but was chosen as king at the death of his brother, in 871 AD. A great general, he drove King Guthrum, leader of the Viking Great Army, out of Wessex, but was then almost taken captive in a surprise winter attack. Hiding first in Selwood Forest, and then at the island base of Athelney, he eventually started to strike back at the hated enemy. When his sworn men rallied to him in the spring, he was able to defeat King Guthrum. Somewhat surprisingly, he treated Guthrum generously and agreed to become his spiritual godfather.

In Alfred the Great, King's Revenge, Alfred was forced to march his army eastward to lift the Viking siege of Rochester, in Kent. After finding that fully half of the pirates were warriors sworn to King Guthrum, Alfred crossed the Thames and took London and part of Mercia.

In Alfred the Great, Young Edward, Alfred faced two invading Viking forces in the west while his son Edward and his son-in-law, Ethelred, took on invading army after invading army in the east and north.

 

Ambrose the Dane-Slayer: (Fictitious) A product of the king of Wessex and a beautiful slave woman with royal Celtic ancestors, he was raised as an atheling, an Anglo-Saxon prince of Wessex. Kidnapped by Viking slavers as a boy, he was taken to Denmark and then fled to Norway and Sweden. Pursued by the Danes, he joined Gunnar of the Rus Vikings, who sent him and his two companions, Phillip and Polonius, to trade on his behalf down the Russian rivers. Ambrose set up trading posts in Novgorod and then Kiev. Finally, he traveled to Constantinople as an emissary for the Kiev leaders. From there, he eventually returned to England to help his brothers fight against the Viking raiders.

He and his friends became a legend when they first joined the Danish Great Army, stole a princess from a Viking stronghold in Ireland, and spied on the Vikings from France. In this story, he helps his nephew gain the throne, and then keep it. Other names he used in various escapades were Hamar and Canuteson.

 

Andrew, Lord: (Fictitious) He is commander of the Scottish garrison, who met Ambrose when he and his friends arrived in Alba.

 

Anwell: (Fictitious) He was the ealdorman of Cornwall who had previously made an alliance with the Danes in return for nominal independence.

 

Askold: He, with his cousin, Dir, were the Rus Viking leaders who left Novgorod to settle in Kiev, a city they felt was ideally situated to control the Russian-Byzantine river trade. Under their leadership, the Dnieper River region came under Varangian control, and they participated in an attack on Constantinople itself. After the attack, in an attempt to end the hostilities, they appointed Ambrose and Polonius to negotiate with the Byzantine Emperor.

 

Asser (Bishop): A monk and then bishop who spent some time at King Alfred's court and was his biographer. He actually joined the court in 886 AD. and died around 908.

 

Canute: (Fictitious) Ambrose's Danish master, he treated the young Ambrose as an adopted son and arranged for Ambrose and his friends to be given refuge in Sweden when Phillip's life was threatened.

 

Cate (of Bridport): (Fictitious) The serving wench, who, under duress from Ealdorman Ethelwold, attempts to poison King Alfred.

 

Constantine II: was crowned king of Scotland in 900. In this story, he refuses to send his young warriors raiding into Northumbria unless Ambrose, Polonius, and Phillip come to meet with him.

 

Demetrious: (Admiral) (Fictitious) Was the Byzantine admiral sent by Grand Chamberlain Basil to catch and execute Ambrose, Polonius, and Phillip. He chased them from Alexandria, across North Africa, through Italy and into France.

 

Dir: See ASKOLD

 

Ealhswith: Wife of King Alfred.

 

Edred: Was the ealdorman of Devonshire, replacing Odda.

 

Eochaid: had been king of the united kingdom of the Picts and the Scots. He died in 900, and Constantine was crowned king.

 

Eohric: King of East Anglia, he met with Prince Ambrose and promised not to get involved in the power struggle in Wessex, but later joined Ethelwold when, as king of Viking Jorvik (Northumbria), Ethelwold seizes Essex and then plans an invasion of Wessex. Both leaders are killed fighting the Kentish fyrd at the Battle of the Holme.

 

Eric (Tall): (Fictitious) A fisherman and headman of a fishing village near Durdle Door in Dorset.

 

Ethelflæd: daughter of Alfred the Great, she married Ethelred, king of Mercia, but sworn vassal to King Alfred and then Edward.

 

Ethelhelm: Ealdorman of Wiltshire, he was reluctant to lead his fyrdmen out of the shire.

 

Ethelhere (Fictitious): Is appointed Ealdorman for Dorset after Ethelwold.

 

Ethelnoth: Ealdorman of Somerset, he was a loyal friend to Alfred.

 

Ethelred: The Mercian king who seized control of western Mercia and eventually married Alfred's daughter. Though a king in his own right, he accepted Alfred as his overlord. In this story, he sends his fyrdmen to the border to intimidate King Eohric of East Anglia.

 

Ethelwold: Alfred's nephew and ealdorman of Dorset. His father was Ethelred, older brother of Alfred. Ethelred had been king of Wessex from AD. 866 to 871. Ethelwold was resentful that Alfred was chosen by the Witan as king over him. When Alfred is on his deathbed, Ethelwold plots to be chosen as king by the West Saxon Witan. When Edward is picked, he storms back to Dorset, kidnaps and marries a nun, seizes two of Edward's royal estates, then states that he would live or die there.

When Edward appears with an army, however, Ethelwold flees northward, to Jorvik. The Vikings there choose him as their king, and within a year or two, he is leading an army of Danes to Essex. The Vikings there submit, and the next year, in alliance with Eohric of East Anglia, the combined Viking armies invade Mercia and Wessex.

Edward the Elder strikes back, sending his fyrdmen deep into East Anglia. On the way home, the Kentish army was caught by a combined Danish force, and, although the Danes keep the field, both Eohric and Ethelwold are killed.

 

Garr: (Fictitious) The husband of Cate, he died at the siege of Chester before the story began.

 

Giric: King of the Picts until 889 AD.

 

Godric: (Fictitious) The young warrior (Dreng) who rode with Ambrose years earlier. Now a duguo, he leads the troop of men pursuing Cate's killers.

 

Godwulf: (Fictitious) Jarl and commander of the Viking squadron that stops Ambrose's ships heading for Scotland.

 

Gretchen: (Fictitious) Was the daughter of Osmond, an ealdorman in Mercia, and distant cousin to the royal family of Wessex. Previous to this story, she first met Ambrose at the Wessex court, and then nursed him back to health when he was wounded during his earlier escape from the Danes. They were betrothed, but Gretchen was first kidnapped by Welsh, and then Viking brigands. Ambrose traveled to Ireland to free her. After many adventures, they were married.

 

Guthfrith: The Danish king in Northumberland in 893, he pledged peace to Alfred but then sent a hundred ship crews to attack in Devon, under the pirate leader called Sigefrith.

 

Guthrum: A Dane who was king of East Anglia, Essex, and part of Mercia, he died in 890. Earlier, he attacked Wessex, was bought off, and then attacked from Mercia at Christmas of 878. After almost defeating Alfred, he was forced to sign a treaty, and he returned to East Anglia. In 885, he broke his treaty with Wessex by allowing his men to go south and join some Vikings from France besieging the West Saxon city of Rochester. Alfred went north with his new fleet to punish the attackers and seized Viking ships at the mouth of the Stour River. In response, Guthrum attacked with every ship he could muster, defeating Alfred's fleet. A second treaty was signed after Alfred seized London and defeated Guthrum in battle. King Eohric replaced Guthrum in 890.

 

Haesten: The Viking pirate leader who invaded Kent in 892 as part of a coordinated attack on the kingdom of Wessex.

 

Hakim: (Fictitious) The merchant from Alexandria who escaped from slavery with Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius, and who escorted the three of them across North Africa after the Byzantines came after the prince and his friends.

 

Hamar: (Fictitious) Was the name Ambrose used previously when he pretended to be a Swedish trader in King Guthrum's camp some years before.

 

Hamesh: One of King Constantine's army commanders.

 

Hammar: (Fictitious) He was the Rus ship captain who took Ambrose on his journey to Kiev and Constantinople. He saved his life when the Grand Chamberlain Basil was after Ambrose in Constantinople. He gave Ambrose a precious sun-stone, the secret of Viking sea travel. In this story, he visits Ambrose in Wessex, and inadvertently brings him news of Ethelwold's coronation in Viking Jorvik.

 

Ivar the Fat: (Fictitious) Lieutenant of the Viking squadron commander, Godwulf.

 

Kenward: (Fictitious) A Thane under Edward who is chosen to carry the king's royal banner.

 

Knutr: A weak Viking king who took power in Jorvik on the death of King Guthfrith. Egbert of Bernicia was a rival for control. In 899, the Vikings of Jorvik accepted Ethelwold as their king after he fled Wessex.

 

Kuralla: (Fictitious) She was a Slav chieftain's daughter whose village defied Bothi, a Rus hersir settled near Novgorod. Bothi ordered her father tortured and killed, and she was about to be given to his warriors when Ambrose purchased her to save her life. Polonius married her before they returned with Ambrose to England.

 

Leng the Bold: (Fictitious) One of Ethelwold's trusted lieutenants, he had previously tried to stop Ambrose on his journey to visit his brother, Alfred. Here he is with Ethelwold at Winchester.

 

Mary-Eve (Sister): (Fictitious) The nun kidnapped from a convent by Ethelwold.

 

Odda: The elderly ealdorman of Devon, he had served four kings faithfully and killed Ubbi Ragnarsson when his army invaded Wessex. He died in 890 AD.

 

Osberht: A rival for the throne of Northumbria, he fought Aelle in a civil war. Both were weakened enough that the Danes were able to take control.

 

Osgar: (Fictitious) A scout who rode ahead to help clear the way for Edward's Long Ride to Benfleet in a previous story. Here he runs a horse farm south of Winchester.

 

Oswin: (Fictitious) The commander of the garrison at Wimborne Minister, he rides to Badbury Rings to surrender after being abandoned by Ethelwold.

 

Osred: (Fictitious) One of the sea thanes who sails with Alfred's southern fleet. In this story, he is captain of a ship of Ambrose's fleet on the southern coast. Later, he captains Ambrose's vessel on his trip to Scotland.

 

Phillip: (Fictitious) A giant of a man, he was the free-born guardian of Ambrose when the prince was a youth, and companion later. Often called the Weapons-master, he had trained several generations of West Saxon noblemen in the military arts. Wherever Ambrose went, there was Phillip. His great goal in life was to protect his prince. When he spied on the Great Army in 868, he called himself Edgar.

 

Plegmund, Archbishop: Was archbishop of Canterbury.

 

Polonius: (Fictitious) He was born to noble Byzantine parents and given an excellent education. When his family had financial reverses, he and his sisters were sold into slavery. He was taken to Lombardy, France, and, eventually, Frisia. There, he chanced to meet Ambrose and Phillip. Together, they embarked on a series of adventures that took them to Norway, Sweden, Novgorod, Kiev, and eventually Constantinople itself. An expert linguist and knife-thrower, he returned to England with Ambrose, and, as Nicholas, helped Ambrose spy on the Danish Great Army. Soon thereafter, he helped steal Gretchen back from the Irish Vikings. He taught Alfred to read, and in this story he acts as the king's military advisor and spy-master.

 

Ramm: (Fictitious) King Alfred's chief interrogator at Winchester.

 

Seger: (Fictitious) A thane and faithful follower of Ealdorman Ethelwold. He rides to Alfred's court in order to force Cate into attempting to poison King Alfred.

 

Sigehelm: He was the ealdorman of Kent, who, in a previous story, sent his men into Rochester before the Vikings could attack. In this story, Ealdorman Sigehelm is killed at the battle of the Holme, in 902.

 

Sun Tzu: Author of The Art of War. This text was written some time between the fifth to the third century B.C.

 

Theomund: (Fictitious) Commander of Ealdorman Sigehelm's army. (Kent)

 

Ubbi Ragnarsson: He was the younger brother of Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless. Ubbi was killed by Odda's fyrdmen when he brought his army into Wessex in 878, in support of King Guthrum.

 

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CHAPTER 1

 

Vikings!

 

The lookout was perched on the crossbar of the great square sail, clinging tightly to the mast while he scanned the horizon for the first signs of the cliffs that would indicate that they had reached the Isle of Wight. From there, their home port of Portsmouth was but a short trip away. The winds had blown contrary for hours, and his companion thanes were exhausted from manning the massive oars. They all looked forward to tying up their long-ships in Portsmouth harbor and spending a little time with their families. Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of three sails peeking above the horizon.

He called out excitedly. "Three sails to the east!"

The fleet commander picked up a speaking trumpet and yelled up to him. "Who are they?"

"Don't know, Commander! The hulls are still below the horizon and I can't make out the crests on their sails!"

The fleet commander cursed volubly, and then lifted his speaking trumpet again. "Steersman, come about to the east! Captain Osred, signal the other ships to follow. King Alfred will have our balls if we do not check out a fleet of ships sailing our coast. Row, you lazy bastards! Your wives and mistresses will have to find solace in somebody else's arms for just a little while longer!"

The little fleet came about, and, when the winds cooperated, the crews, in turn, pulled in their oars, hauled up the great square sail and then collapsed on their rowing benches. The change-of-course and approach of the eight vessels were eventually noted by the strangers, because the three vessels at first grew rapidly larger, but suddenly reversed direction and fled eastward.

The fleet commander recognized the crest of one of the more powerful jarls of Jorvik on the sails of the retreating ships, but could not further close the distance. At last, as dusk neared, he ordered the fleet to turn back toward the Isle of Wight and the shelter of the majestic bay by the little settlement of St. Helens.

 

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CHAPTER 2

Alfred Lies Dying

The king was propped up on his sick bed, and he had had his crown placed on his head. Each member of the Witan bowed as they entered his bower, and then made room for the members following.

The king's voice was weak and hoarse. The important men of the kingdom, both lay and ecclesiastical, stood silently so they could hear the faint words of their dying king.

"Members of the Witan! Loyal friends! I know I am soon going to meet my Maker, but I yet worry about Wessex. We are the last free Angelisc country on the island of Britain, and the Danes are yet panting after our riches and our women. In my earlier years, I was forced to hide in a forest and then a swamp, praying that the Viking invaders did not find the location of my immediate family and the few faithful companions who had escaped Guthrum's sneak attack. I offer my thanks to all of you who wrought a miracle that spring. Against all odds, we managed to raise an army and defeat the heathen devils. Thanks to you, and to countless others, too many who have succumbed to grievous battle wounds, our kingdom has managed to survive, and even prosper. Our burhs, with their permanent garrisons, both control the rivers, fords and roads of our land, and now give our people protection and us the freedom to move Wessex's fyrdmen wherever needed. Our summer and winter armies mean that no longer do the Danes find us unprepared for their treachery or aggression. Our innovations have managed to keep the ungodly heathen at bay. I am recognized as bretwalda of Wales and Anglish Mercia, and the Scots and Picts, while they don't love us, are yet our allies. Victory after victory, and much Saxon blood, has driven the Viking invaders out of our country. In my son's, or perhaps my grandson's time, I hope and expect that all of Britain will once again be one country, but under West Saxon rule!

I thank you for all for the blood you have shed, your lifelong support, and the courage so many of you have shown. My dream, however, and, indeed, the very existence of this country, is very much in jeopardy. Mighty Northumbria fell to Viking adventurers. Frankland, less than a hundred years ago the ruler of most of Europe, is now not even capable of chasing out the Viking bands who have been rampaging through its territories for over a generation.

Why have these mighty empires fallen so low? The answer is simple. Divided leadership. Both suffered from civil war. The constituent parts have found, to their sorrow, that they have nowhere near the strength of the whole. Lord Polonius taught me this lesson a long time ago with a handful of straw. The lesson has stuck with me all my life. We must face the heathen host with a united front, or like a single straw, we all snap easily and fall into the dustbin of history."

 Alfred broke into a coughing fit and brought up a little blood. Polonius moved forward to help him, but he waved the Byzantine aside. "No, good friend, there are few tasks left for me to do before I leave this world, but this is the most important one remaining! If you would prepare a good draught of your elixir, I would be pleased to drink it in but a few minutes.'

Finally, looking exhausted, the king struggled to continue. 'All our good work, all our sacrifices, can yet be undone by discord amongst you when I die. I have made it clear to all of you that I have named Edward, my eldest son, as my heir. He was thrust into battle at an early age, and his record speaks for itself. This young man has led our fyrdmen to victory after victory, without a single defeat. It is a record I wish I could claim . . . Yes, yes, Ethelwold. I am aware that the right of primogeniture is not always followed in this land. It generally is, but was, in fact, not followed when my brothers and I were chosen. That was, however, only because there were no sons of suitable age when each of my brothers died in turn, and the country was in the midst of a series of Viking invasions. Given the situation, this august body picked the man who was most ready to deal with the challenge.

I am aware, Ethelwold, that some here have championed your case, and I am told that you will be considered a candidate for the throne when it comes time to replace me. You will do me the courtesy of letting me finish my statement before you attempt to teach your king the rules of succession . . . As Ealdorman Ethelwold no doubt wishes to remind me, a king may state his preference, but it is the Witan that has the final say in choosing the successor.

That is your task, members of the Witan! I implore you on this. Whoever you choose, the choice must not split the empire into two separate camps. To do so will be to destroy the last free Angelisc kingdom in all Britain. Divided, Wessex will inevitably fall to the Viking hosts to the east and north, who watch and wait patiently for any sign of weakness . . . Edward, on your knees, my son!"

The handsome young atheling slipped quickly to his knees in obedience to his father's sudden command. He looked up questioningly into his father's face.

"My son, I want you to swear, in the presence of these august men of the Witan, and in the sight of Almighty God, that you will accept the decision of the Witan on the matter of who will rule in my place after I die."

"Beloved father and king, I swear on my honor that I will bow to the will of the Witan."

Alfred struggled to speak loudly enough that all in the room could hear. "Members of the Witan, guardians of my kingdom, I charge you now to do the same. When I am gone and you meet in council, you may disagree with each other. You may raise your voice in discord, but once you have made the choice and the votes have been counted, I charge you all to accept the decision of the majority! Only in this way will the kingdom not be torn asunder in the way of Northumbria and Francia. On your knees! I want to hear each of you repeat the oath."

Each man dropped to his knees and spoke the requisite words. Ambrose watched Ethelwold carefully. At last he reluctantly slipped to his knees and mouthed the words.

Alfred raised his right hand, and the room quieted again. "Thank you, councilors. I think that I need to rest again, but I want you to remember the importance . . . no, the necessity of unity. If you cannot work as one, then Wessex will surely fall. Choose with your head and your heart when the time comes, and may God bless you all!"

 

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CHAPTER 3

The Poison

As Polonius entered the kitchen, he saw a young woman pouring a vial of powder into a horn of mead. The Byzantine scholar and royal spymaster spoke sharply as he rushed to her side.

"Girl, what are you doing?"

The girl was startled and almost dropped the vial. "Why, Lord, I am preparing King Alfred's mead, as I do every night."

Polonius seized the girl's wrist with one hand, and, with the other, he pried the vial loose. "What was in the vial, girl?"

"It is medicine for the king, good sir!"

"And who told you to put it in the king's mead?"

The girl looked silently at Polonius and bit her lip.

Polonius called to the nearest kitchen helper. "You! Go find Thane Phillip and tell him I need him immediately!"

The giant thane entered the room within seconds, looking worried and with his massive broadsword slung on his back. "What is it, Polonius? This lad here said that it was urgent!"

"I caught this girl putting something into King Alfred's mead!"

"Do you know what it was?"

"Not yet. Hold her while I look more closely."

Handing the girl's wrist to Phillip, Polonius sniffed the vial, then slapped the open end of the vial against the palm of his hand. A few fine grains fell out of the container, and Polonius rolled the grains of the substance between his fingers. "I am not sure, but it reminds me of Monkshood."

Phillip looked puzzled. "What is Monkshood?"

"It is a plant from which is made a rather potent poison called Aconite. You might know it as Wolf's Bane. It has a long history. It is said that the wife of Emperor Claudius gave her sweet husband a fatal dose of the poison in his mushrooms."

"Then you are saying that this serving wench was trying to poison King Alfred?"

"I pray not, but I will do a little test, and we shall soon find out."

"What about the wench?"

"I fear the worst. For now, take her to the interrogation shed, turn her over to Ramm, and tell him to put her in chains. We will know the truth soon enough, and then we will see if we need his persuasive skills."

As the terrified girl was dragged away by Phillip, Polonius poured the mead into a wide bowl and called over an old hound that was attempting to scavenge food in the royal kitchen.

 

***

 

Ambrose, prince of Wessex and older bastard brother of the king, stepped through the doorway into the dark interior of the interrogation shed. With him came the Byzantine scholar, Phillip, and Edward, eldest surviving son of King Alfred. The serving wench, naked, was manacled, and the chain, that stretched up into the rafters of the shed, forced her to stand on the tips of her toes.

She recognized the royal prince, and called out to him. "Oh, Prince Ambrose, thank God you have come! You know me! I am Cate of Bridport, a burh in Dorset. There is some kind of terrible mistake! These rough men cut me best clothing from me and hung me like this for all to see! May I at least have a covering?"

Prince Ambrose spoke. "Cate, you hang there because you have been accused of the most heinous crime a subject of this land can possibly commit. Your lack of clothing is the least of your worries right now. If you are innocent of any crimes, I will personally buy you the nicest clothes we can find. If you are guilty - you are not going to need any more clothes - ever. Girl, did you put a powder in King Alfred's mead?"

"Aye, Prince, but it was just to make him better!"

Ambrose sighed and turned toward the Byzantine scholar. "Polonius, will you explain to this girl just what is going to happen to her this day?"

"Of course, Prince. Cate, I caught you putting a strange powder into the king's mead."

"Yes, Lord. I told you - it were medicine."

"Girl, the powder you put in King Alfred's drink is a deadly poison that would have killed him in minutes, just as surely as I am talking to you now."

Cate looked at Polonius with horror. "No, Lord! I am a good and loving subject of King Alfred! It were him, who, after me Garr fell at the siege of Chester, took me in and gave me a job as a serving wench. I owe the king everything and would never harm good King Alfred!"

In answer, Polonius turned to Phillip. "Weapons-master, would you please bring in the body that lies just outside the door?"

Phillip returned a moment later with the limp body of an aged hound. He laid the dead dog gently on the floor, and Polonius continued. "Girl, this hound has done one last service for her royal master. She drank the mead you planned to give the king. After drinking the mead you prepared for the king, the hound threw up and then lost control of her bowels. Shortly after that, the poor beast's heart started to beat erratically, and then she died. That, girl, is what you intended for your king!"

"Oh, no, Lord. I told you, I could never harm King Alfred!"

Polonius' smoldering anger burst free. "Look at that hound, girl! Before you leave this shed, you are going to wish it was you who drank that poison, and not that poor dead dog! Prince Ambrose has asked me to explain to you what is going to happen here to you. The interrogators over in the corner have started a fire in order to heat their implements. Their job today is to extract every bit of information from you that they can. You have no idea how much pain they are going to inflict on you! They will start by taking birch switches to you, and then a whip. They will beat you, systematically, as you have never been beaten before. When their arms get tired from that, they will use the hot irons to burn you in private and tender places. When you wake up tomorrow, in screaming agony, they will start all over again, and then the day after that. Eventually, when you stop responding to the whips and the hot irons, they will remove your fingernails. After that, they will shatter your fingers and toes, one at a time."

"But Sir, how will I be able to work if me fingers and toes are broken?"

"Cate, you still have not grasped the enormity of what you tried to do, If you are found guilty, you are going to be condemned to a terrible death. For the sin you have committed against your lawful king, the bishop himself will come to excommunicate you from Holy Mother Church. After he speaks the words, your body can never be buried in consecrated soil and your soul will be condemned to eternal damnation.

When you are a torn and battered wreck, and we are finally satisfied that we have wrung from you every bit of information that you know, you will be put in that iron cage over there, and what remains of you will hang in the square, naked, so that boys can throw rotten fruit at you. There you will stay until you starve to death. Then the birds will pick at your dead flesh. That is your fate girl! You will suffer hell on earth, and then God will send you to a place of endless torments!"

The girl went ash white. "Oh, no, Lord! You don't understand! I but tried to help the king!"

Polonius pointed at the ground. "Look at that poor hound again, Cate, and tell me just how you were trying to help the king!"

The girl looked from one to the other in panic. "I am sworn to secrecy, Lord."

"Soon you will be begging us to listen to your most intimate secrets.' Polonius turned to the chief interrogator. 'Ramm, you may begin. See if a dose of the switch will loosen her tongue."

Cate looked at the supple switch the burly man picked up, and the tears started to flow. "Oh, sirs, you do not need to hurt me with that! I will tell you anything you want to know!"

Polonius held up a hand to stop the interrogator from striking with the switch he held in his hand. "Hold a moment, Ramm. Let's hear what she has to say."

"Sirs, it were last week. Seger, thane of Ethelwold, ealdorman of Dorset, arrived at the king's court. He called me aside and told me that King Alfred was terribly ill and needed a special medicine if he were to survive. He told me that me ealdorman, Ethelwold, wanted me to give the king the special medicine personal like. He told me that I were to say nothing to no one - it were to be a happy surprise when the king suddenly got better."

Polonius frowned. "Did that not seem curious to you?"

"Aye, it did, Lord, but when I said that I could not do that without your permission, he told me that Ealdorman Ethelwold held me ma and da captive, along with me two sisters. You sees, Lord, I am Dorset born, but came here to marry me Garr . . . until he fell in battle at Chester. Anyways, he told me that me family back in Bridport would die a very slow and painful death if I told anyone about our conversation or if I refused to obey the command of me lawful ealdorman."

"So you admit you tried to poison your king!"

"So I tried to help me king and protect me family, and if that were wrong then kill me now! You have to believe me - I never meant to hurt King Alfred!"

Polonius turned to Prince Edward and Ambrose. "Well, princes . . . What do we do now?"

Ambrose thought for a few moments before he spoke. "Cate, you can help show us your innocence by agreeing to tell your story to the members of the Witan."

"The Royal Council? Prince, me ealdorman is part of the council and would be there. He would hear me story and make me family suffer terribly . . ."

"And if I can protect your family from Ethelwold and his thugs?"

"Then yes, Prince! It is only the thought of me family that makes me hesitate. I only pray that God will forgive what I almost did!"

Ambrose turned to face Polonius. "Scholar, how long would it take for a ship and crew to get to Bridport in Dorset?"

"We have horses saddled and messengers standing by. A messenger could be on his way within minutes. I will write the arrest warrant and you or Prince Edward can affix the king's seal to the document. There is currently a squadron of the fleet based at Portsmouth, so, by road and sea . . . perhaps three days in all, Prince."

"And could a messenger who rides all the way do it faster?"

Polonius thought a moment. "Not if the ship sails right away, Prince."

Cate spoke up in alarm. "Sirs, you cannot arrest my family! They have done nothing wrong!"

Ambrose turned to the girl. "You misunderstand, Cate. We will seize them with a strong force so Ethelwold's officers will not dare to interfere. Once we have them safe aboard ship, we will bring them here and protect them from your ealdorman. They will not be under arrest."

"Prince, you would do that?"

"Only if you keep your promise to tell the truth of what happened before all of the Witan."

"Yes, Prince. If me family is safe, I swear I will tell the truth of what happened - even if the devil himself tries to stop me."

Ambrose smiled. "Then that is settled. Oh, and Polonius, add an arrest warrant for Thane Seger. I want him brought back, as well, to answer to these charges."

Polonius nodded. "Consider it as good as done, Prince. I will go and draft the document right away."

Edward stepped from the shadows. His father, the king, was gravely ill, and the young man was the most likely successor to the throne. He looked at the beautiful girl hanging naked in front of him, and spoke. "And Cate?"

Ambrose replied. "I would suggest she stay here under close guard. I think we should keep her shackled so that she cannot run or kill herself, and we want to be very sure that Ethelwold's minions can not get to her. The odds are better than even that Thane Seger left someone to cut her throat after she had done the deed. Dead serving wenches cannot tell embarrassing stories."

Phillip turned to the Saxon interrogators. "Ramm, you heard Prince Ambrose. The girl is to come to no more harm, at least for the moment. Give her a blanket to sleep under and a bucket for her personal needs, then loosen the chain enough that she can lie on the ground. I do not, however, want her ever to be left alone - not for even one minute. You can take shifts, but one of you must be awake and watching her at all times. If you so much as need a piss, you will wake up your partner to take over your shift. I want no unwelcome visitors tonight, and I want a suicide watch on her. Is all that clear?"

The burly churl bobbed his head. "It will be as you command, Weapons-master. One guard outside and two within. Two always awake."

 

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