Some comments on the previous novels in the series, posted by readers.

"Great read."

"This is a great book! I could not put it down and will definitely buy the next in the series."

"I can't wait for future editions to the Ambrose tale."

"Ambrose is back! Terrific concept and plot."

"Great reading with some historical info woven in it."


AUTHOR'S NOTE



There appears to be considerable debate about the exact status of Ethelred of Mercia. He managed to seize or keep a part of Mercia from Guthrum and his Danes when the Vikings conquered East Anglia and the eastern portion of Mercia. It is clear that Ethelred accepted Alfred of Wessex, and then his son Edward, as bretwalda, or over-king. Did that make him an ealdorman of Wessex or under-king of Mercia? Some of the Welsh rulers seem to have considered him a king, so I have chosen to call him one, with Ethelflaed at his side as queen. This issue will come up in this story, based on some real incidents around the time of Alfred's death.


I originally entitled this book Edward the King; Battle of Tetenhall, as this important battle destroyed the Northumbrian threat and gave the Mercians and West Saxons their chance to spread north and eastward with minimal interference from the Viking rulers north of the Humber River. Eventually, however, I came to realize that the real story was about an indomitable woman - Ethelflaed, the 'Lady of the Mercians'. Ambrose and Polonius will be back, and perhaps steal a little of the credit for Ethelflaed's many accomplishments, but they will be overshadowed by a real woman who ruled men in a time when women held no power. With a chronically ill husband, Ethelflaed led armies, built fortifications, and ran the country, first in her husband's name, and then, after his death, on her own. A daughter of Alfred the Great, she sounds like she was a truly exceptional woman, one who was inordinately successful in what was very definitely a man's world. For that reason, I decided to name the novel in her honor.


The arrival in Britain of Ingimund and his Norse warriors is not recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, (except for a mention of the re-fortification of Chester), but there is a reference to it in the Irish Annals. There is considerable evidence that the Norse settled along the western coast of England, so the story is certainly plausible. The most accurate dates I could come up with indicate that Ingimund arrived in AD. 902 and rebelled in 905. The novel approach to defending Chester, far from being a figment of my imagination, was actually lifted directly from the Irish Annals and was attributed by them to Ethelflaed herself.


No authority on the topic seems to know where Hitchingford was, so I arbitrarily put it on the Trent River in Northumbria. I am not sure if it is a blessing or a curse, but the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as well as the many interpretations by various historians, simply do not agree on either facts or dates. I have striven to be as accurate as possible, but where it was not clear, I used the date, quote or event that best fit my version of the story. That being said, I went to great lengths to keep the story as accurate as I could. There was mention of a peace treaty being signed between Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria in 907, but nowhere was it called a two-year truce.


It seems that, in fact, it was Edward and Ethelred who broke the terms of the treaty in 909, with a raiding expedition into Northumbria to, amongst other things, rescue the remains of St. Oswald! The following year, the Northumbrian Vikings retaliated with an attack of their own.


Once again the Vikings of Northumbria sent their ravaging army into Mercia. Once again the Mercians and West Saxons were forced to combine their forces in order to drive out the hated enemy. In my version, Ambrose, Polonius, and Phillip waited in ambush for the Viking invaders. If the joint West Saxon-Mercian army was defeated, then Mercia could possibly have fallen.


The combined allied forces managed to position themselves between the Vikings and their fleet. One of the decisive battles between the Vikings, the Saxons and the Angles, now took place near Tetenhall.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles list quite a few new burhs, the fortified settlements that were so key to keeping the Vikings out of Wessex and Mercia. Once they were finally constructed, around the time of the death of Ethelred, husband to Ethelflaed, Edward and Ethelflaed started to expand slowly north and east into Viking territory by advancing in stages and then building various burhs to consolidate their conquests. In several cases, the actual locations of the burhs are no longer known, in which case I made a guess based on the information I have.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the death of an abbot and the subsequent raid into Welsh Brycheiniog in retaliation. I could not even find the name of the abbot, or of the Welsh queen taken captive, for that matter. With such a dearth of information, I, of course, let my imagination run free.


There are no records of a battle near Witham, but Edward camped there and built royal burhs at Hertford and Maldon. It is likely that the pagan Danes of Essex rallied against him at some point after the invading Angle and Saxon army arrived and started to build forts in the heart of the southern Viking territory. While the word 'Viking' actually means to go on an overseas expedition, I use it in a very general sense in this story to loosely label any Danes, Swedes or Norwegians (Norse).
Individual words in italics generally have special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix II. Here is the story of an incredible queen whose name deserves to resound through the ages. I hope that you enjoy it!

The author,
Bruce Corbett


CHAPTER 1


Edgar Joins the Expedition



Ambrose watched his wife glide silently across the floor. She was clad only in a gown whose gossamer material had come all the way from the other side of the world. His eyes wandered over the tantalizing body that was just barely hidden underneath. Even after all these years, he found himself reacting in a familiar way to the sight of her smile and firm body.


She smiled and spoke in a low voice. “Good morning, my beloved.”
He smiled in response. “And good morning to you, my sweet. Perhaps . . . I did not mean to disturb you, but now that I have . . . perhaps you would like to return to your bed for a little time?”


Gretchen looked sadly at her husband. “Polonius and Phillip await you even as we speak, light-of-my-life. Nothing would give me greater pleasure, but I fear it is too late today for such intimacy.”


Ambrose sighed. “Then to what do I owe this pleasure?”
She suddenly became much more serious. “My husband is riding off on a secret expedition and you have to ask? Come home safe, my love. I will light candles and pray to God every night for your safety.”


“I am only riding into southern Mercia, my sweet.”


“I know, Husband, but you are riding into territory where the Welsh, Danes and Norse all raid, yet you refuse to take a strong escort.”


“The less who know my true destination, the better. You know that, sweet wife.”
Gretchen sighed. “Aye, I do. Another woman calls, and you must run.”
“She is a queen, Wife, and she happens to be my niece. She would not send for her old and decrepit uncle unless it was important.”


“I know, Husband. That does not mean that I will not worry . . . I also have a favor to ask of you.”


“With you dressed like that, I think I will find it hard to say no, my love.”
Gretchen licked her lips and smiled again. “I want you to take Edgar with you.”
“Edgar? But he is still a boy, and not yet done with his education!”


“You have been away too often, Husband. He has grown into a young man, and it is time for our eldest son to have a different kind of education. He can only learn so much in the royal school. He can write and decipher as well as most of his teachers, and, though you are never here long enough to see, he is becoming a formidable warrior. He trains for hours daily, and the truth is, we can only hide him behind stout walls for so long. He yearns to ride at his father's side, and, much as it frightens me even to say it, it is time for him to gain some real-life experiences.”


“My love, you just said that you worried about my safety. Now you want me to take our precious son into the wilds of Mercia.”


“I always worry, Husband, but there is no really safe place on this island - not as long as the Danes and Norsemen continue to raid our lands.”


“I cannot take an army north and remain discreet, Gretchen. It is only me, Polonius, and Phillip. We will travel light and move fast.”


“You mean, sweet husband, that my son would only be protected by two of the greatest swordsmen in all Britain, along with the legendary knife-thrower whose blades have never missed their mark? The three men whose exploits are sung even by Viking skalds. I know for a fact that brave Viking kings fear to match blades with you, and when one finally did, it cost him his head.


Phillip can work on his weapons-training, and Polonius is considered by many to be the greatest scholar on the entire island, who, not incidentally, loves teaching more than breathing. Our son will learn far more at your side in a month than a year with the dry church scholars Alfred and now Edward have recruited from the Continent.”
Ambrose held up his hands in surrender. “Enough, my love! I could never hope to win an argument with a woman dressed as seductively as you. Put some more clothes on, and then tell the boy he can ride as my squire.”


Gretchen grinned. “His gear is already packed, and he awaits you just outside the door.”


Ambrose looked surprised. “You mean that this was a conspiracy? You knew in advance that I would agree?”


“Husband, I am a woman and you are but a man. This gown works every time!”
“Be careful, woman, you are very close to having it torn from you as you stand there!”


“Don't make idle promises, Husband. A woman's lust is insatiable, but I know for a fact that you have no more of your friend Hakim's ground tiger testicles to help your exhausted wand recover its rigidity.”


Ambrose looked at his smiling wife one more time. He spoke gruffly. “Woman, your time will come! Now send in my new squire! I have a queen waiting impatiently for me!”


Gretchen wrapped herself in a heavy woolen cloak and spoke. “I knew it - an empty promise. We will have to send to far-off Alexandria for more of friend Hakim's magic powder.'


Even as she spoke, Gretchen clutched the cloak tightly and reached for the door handle. She swung the door open and called out into the hall beyond. 'Squire Edgar, come and present yourself to your new master!”


Ambrose's eldest son entered the chamber and stood proudly in front of his father. Ambrose watched the boy approach with a mixture of pride and regret. He had spent most of his life fighting the enemies of Wessex or helping to organize the country's defenses. He had fought from Ireland to Alba, from boggy East Anglia to the craggy mountains of Wales. The times he had spent at home with his family were all too brief, and he realized suddenly that he barely knew this young warrior who stood so proudly in front of him. He smiled.


“Edgar, I understand that you want to go out and see the real world.”


“Yes, Father. I can already beat most of the boys in my weapons class, and I have memorized every book in the royal library. I would now like the honor of riding with my father and learning from the greatest Byzantine scholar in all Britain. You yourself have often told me that it has been Uncle Polonius' inventions and knowledge of other civilizations that have allowed us to prevail against the invaders. What better way than to learn at the feet of the master?”


Ambrose snorted. “The odds are pretty good that he is the only Byzantine scholar in all of Britain, but you are right, he is brilliant. You do realize that you may be asked to clean the feet of your august scholar, or empty his slops, boy? You will not be traveling as a royal atheling, but as a humble squire and servant. You will accept any task, no matter how distasteful, and obey any orders instantly and to the best of your ability. Can you manage to do that?”


“I swear it, Father!”


Ambrose suddenly grinned at his eldest son. “Then get your gear on a horse! We ride north in less than a single turn of the hourglass!”


***

Ambrose had been talking strategy with Polonius, and when the Byzantine rode ahead, Edgar nudged his horse closer to his father's mount. “Father, I couldn't help but overhear your conversation with Uncle Polonius. You said that you favor the Welsh archers in combat. Why do you like to use the Welshmen so much? There are few of our own fyrdmen who do not know the use of a hunting bow.”
Ambrose smiled and ruffled his son's hair. “Constantine, the king of the Scots and Picts in the north of our island, asked me almost the same question just a few years ago.”


“And what did you tell him?”


“Nothing. I had the weapons-master fetch his bow, and I asked for the king's champion archer.”


“And what happened?”


“The man was massive, even bigger than Phillip, but his preferred weapon was a crossbow. It had the power of Phillip's bow, but it was very slow to crank. In three seconds, Phillip put two arrows right through a Viking shield we were using as a target, and the bow drove the bodkin heads not only through the shield, but also deep into the support beam holding the shield upright. The weapons-master then handed the giant his bow and two arrows. The big Scot, strong as he was, was unable to draw the bow to his ear, and even then he missed the target both times.”
“Then the lesson was that the Welshmen are stronger than anyone but Phillip?”
Ambrose smiled. “Not quite. The lesson was that most people could shoot a Welsh war bow . . . if they practiced a couple of hours per day, for perhaps several years.”
Edgar looked puzzled. “But why, Father?”


“The only other bowmen I know who are the equal of the best of the Welsh archers are the nomad riders Polonius and I met on the endless plains crossed by the River Dnieper. They were ferocious horsemen and superb archers. The warriors looked almost misshapen, with their shoulder and arm muscles out of proportion to the rest of them. I see the same with the best of the Welsh archers. The bows the nomads and the Welsh use are very different in construction, but both have double or even triple the pull of our Saxon hunting bows. It takes many years of effort to develop the muscles to be able to shoot such a bow accurately.”


“Then the Welsh and eastern nomad horsemen can shoot farther than our archers?”
“They can, but, more important, their arrows, at least at close range, can penetrate the stoutest armor. There are crossbows capable of doing the same, but the archers can shoot five or six arrows for every quarrel a crossbowman can shoot. In short, the archers can harass from a distance and then kill if you try to close on them.”
“Then how can you defend against them? The ballads say that you and King Alfred once took a Welsh city.”


“The ballads are correct, and that is a good question. The Byzantines . . . the Eastern Romans . . . have fought entire armies of mounted bowmen. They recruit barbarian horse archers by the thousand. Polonius tells me that it was a lesson that the ancient Romans learned to their great sorrow when they first marched east and met the mounted Parthian bowmen of the great steppes. The best infantrymen in the world could do nothing against lightly armored, mounted bowmen. The Roman legionaries stood resolutely in their formation . . . and died where they stood, unable to hit back at the swirling horsemen. The lesson cost them seven legions at the Battle of Carrhae, but the Romans eventually learned that one of the best defenses against horse archers is more horse archers. That is why the Eastern Romans recruit so many.”


“But if we don't have the archers capable of matching the Welshmen, how could you take on a Welsh army?”


“We didn't. We took the tun by subterfuge. To answer the question about how to defeat a Welsh army - the Welsh archers fight as infantry, though, like our own fyrdmen, they often use horses for mobility. Unlike the steppe horsemen, however, the length of their powerful longbows makes it impossible for them to shoot effectively from horseback. They are generally lightly armored, if they wear any at all. If horsemen, or armored infantrymen, can get close, then the bowmen panic and die easily. In short, you must close the distance as quickly as possible, accept the inevitable casualties, and get in amongst them. That being said, I would far rather have them on our side than fighting against us.”



CHAPTER 2


Ambush in Mercia



The trees arced high above their heads, forming a canopy that filtered out almost all of the direct sunlight. Only the sweet trilling of birds and the sound of the horses' hooves on the hard-packed earth disturbed the tranquility. The four companions rode slowly through the winding green tunnel, until they suddenly heard the unnatural sound of metal on metal somewhere ahead and out of sight. Phillip held up a hand to stop his companions.


Words rumbled from his mouth. “That is no sound of nature! There are likely armed men somewhere ahead!”


Ambrose spoke quietly. “It is not too late to turn around. Good as we may be, there are only the three of us.”


Young Edgar spoke indignantly. “There are four, Father! I can fight!”
Ambrose snapped. “There are three warriors and one boy who is not yet proven in battle, and is sworn to obey without question! Well, my friends, what do you think?”


Phillip shrugged. “There is but the one road, and a queen awaits us at the other end. If they are Danes, then we will be lost Viking tribesmen, and, if Mercian, we order them to escort us to their queen.”


Ambrose smiled. “There is a third alternative, old friend, that you have not yet mentioned.”


Phillip looked down from his massive mount. “It is true that I am growing old, Atheling, but I am not senile yet.' Even as the huge warrior spoke, he was busily untying the straps that held his powerful compound war bow to the saddle. He slipped heavily from the horse and stood on the ground, needing his full weight to bend the powerful bow until he could slip the bowstring into the upper notch.
'If I was setting up an ambush, I would leave a couple of men up the road to watch for danger or to catch any who might try to flee my main force. Count to a thousand, Prince. After that, you and Edgar can ride ahead slowly, leading Polonius' and my horse.”


“And you two, Weapons-master?”


“Polonius and I will slip through the woods and look for any unpleasant surprises.”


“Phillip, they will hear you coming!”


“Not if you do your job well and keep their attention, Prince. Loosen some of the metal tools on our horses and let them rattle as you advance. That should cover any noise from our movement. Greek, are you ready yet?”


The gaunt Byzantine responded by slipping off his horse and untying the heavy coat that he had been wearing to keep his thin body warm. His sheaths of throwing saxes were now instantly accessible.


Even as he prepared, he mumbled to Ambrose. “I told you, Master, that we should bring a decent-sized escort of fyrdmen, but, oh no, you over-ruled the king's learned advisor - yet again.”


Ambrose scowled. “Scholar, the queen said that the less who knew about our visit, the better. I merely obeyed her wishes.”


“I understand, Prince. It is just that Phillip and I are the ones generally tasked with keeping you alive. It hurts me to say it to you, but you do not cooperate at all well.”
Ambrose suddenly smiled at his companion of more than forty years. “Polonius, it is not too late for us to turn around.”


The Byzantine shrugged. “I have to admit that, in following you, I have lived a good life, in spite of the myriad dangerous situations into which you have led me. I have always known that, somewhere out there, there is a barbarian with a rusty sword who will finally manage to gut me like a fish. As fast as I can think of ways to kill your old enemies, you and your family manage to find new ones.”


Ambrose smiled. “It is a skill that I seem to excel in, my friend. Do you want us to go back? Just say the word, and I will faithfully obey your command.”
Polonius just shrugged. “You would just find new enemies somewhere else, probably with even bigger swords. As our friend Hakim would say. 'It is Kismet!' If we must, we fight. If God wills the life of a great scholar to end today because his friend did not want to heed good advice and bring extra fyrdmen, then so be it! It will be on your conscience - not mine.”


Ambrose grinned. “Well spoken, my devious friend. That is not exactly the ringing endorsement I was hoping for, but I agree with your general sentiment. I am personally not prepared to turn around unless it is clear that we are facing both a hostile and overwhelming host.”


Polonius sighed and spoke quietly. “Then I guess this renowned scholar must once again go spend his day skulking through the woods.”


After watching his two companions slip into the undergrowth, one on either side of the road, Ambrose counted to a thousand. Then he caught the reins of Phillip's horse, signaled silently for Edgar to do the same with Polonius', and urged his mount forward at a plodding walk. The two riders, leading the pair of extra saddled horses, advanced carelessly. The prince talked loudly to his son and didn't look at the vegetation that they were passing. He did not want to alarm the owners of watching eyes, and, besides, Phillip and Polonius, between them, had watched his back for more than eighty years. Ambrose knew that the big thane and the gaunt Byzantine would shadow them and cover their backs, as surely as night follows day.


Ambrose spoke loudly. “I think I heard something! Tie your spare horse to one of those branches, and we will advance cautiously. Draw your sword, boy!”


They stopped to tie the reins of their friends' horses to a branch that overhung the road, and then they continued around the bend with swords in hand. Ambrose hoped that the abandoned horses would lure the hidden men out of cover. With luck, and if the men were sufficiently careless, they might even survive their impending meeting with the weapons-master and the wizard. As Ambrose and Edgar lost sight of the horses, they suddenly saw ten ragged but armed men come into view.


The strangers stood in a line that completely blocked the road. Most of the men wore leather jerkins that had pieces of metal fastened to them, though one man wore metal armor that must have been old when the ancient Romans ruled the land. A squat man, almost as wide as he was tall, stared at the two riders with little pig eyes. He hefted his battle axe, and then spoke in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.
“Off the horses, you two! If you give us yer horses, yer weapons, and yer gold and silver, you might yet live to see sunset!”


Ambrose smiled. “I have no doubt that you would like all that, stranger, but just what makes you think that you can have them?”


“I never had the chance for learning, like you 'igh and mighty ones, old man, but I be capable of counting two fingers for yer side and ten toes for mine. Simple numbers tells me I can have whatever I want! Hurry now! If you make us take them from you, we will take yer clothes, as well, and leave you bare-ass naked.”


The atheling nodded. “I have to admit - you seem a crafty thief. Either you ran out of body parts to count on, or you decided to ignore the men you left in the woods behind us. You have me puzzled, however. Since when do able-bodied Mercians steal from innocent travelers?”


“Since the God-cursed Viking raiders have swept through our lands yet again! Our homes be burned, our livestock slaughtered, and our crops stolen or destroyed. We be honest and hard-working men, but our families will not make it through to spring without some very generous donations from such as yerself!”


Ambrose stared down at the leader. “If you had asked for Christian charity, I would have obliged you, but I do not give my money to thieves, and no one takes my horse or weapons. Go home now, or there are going to be ten more grieving widows to join the women who may have already lost husbands today.”


The squat man, clearly the leader, just stared at the atheling. “Are you daft, old man? Climb down, and live! By the looks of yer weapons and yer expensive armor, you can afford to buy yerself another nag or two. I am guessing that you be a rich man.”


Ambrose smiled again. “This is your lucky day, sir. This is my son's first seven-night as a squire and he is a sensitive lad, not yet used to the sight of blood, so I am going to give you and your followers one last chance to move out of our way.”


“And just who is going to make me?' The squat man laughed. 'An old man and an untried boy?”


“It is true that I am but an old Saxon warrior who has seen better days, but you should know before you attempt to kill me that your people have taken to calling me 'Daneslayer'.”


“Daneslayer? I know that name! By the good God . . . that makes you Ambrose the Bastard! I stood in the shield-wall with you at Chester some years back, and together we thumped the God-cursed Danes!”


“Then for old times sake, and for the love of your family, Warrior, move aside. Better yet, join us and escort us to your queen. I am answering her summons. Do you think I ride the back roads of Mercia for fun?”


“Our queen?”


“Yes, Queen Ethelflaed. She is waiting for me at the monastery not far ahead.”


The dirty man in the ancient armor called out. “Don't liss'en to 'em, Big Luke! If the queen is really close and ‘er guardsmen catch us, she will 'ang us for what we tried to do today!”


Ambrose spoke firmly. “You may do what you want, but we are coming through, and some of you are going to die if you try and stop us!”


The squat man hesitated. “You are known to be a brave and honest man, Daneslayer, but I have to think of me family. Another cold winter like the last will kill us all. Nay, I have great respect for you and do not want to shed yer blood, but we still need yer silver.”


“In less than a minute, Big Luke, some of your friends are going to die. You might even be one of the ones to meet Almighty God before the sun sets this day.”


The Mercian grinned, showing the many gaps in his mouth where teeth had been lost. “Yer a bigger fool than I thought, Daneslayer! It is still two to twelve, if we count the boy, and even if you were the greatest warrior in all Christendom, you can't beat those odds!”


Ambrose sighed. “You are going to have to learn how to count a little more accurately, Big Luke. The honest truth is - by now it is four to ten.”


A gaunt tall man, ragged and unkept, laughed and called out. “Maybe 'e's counting 'is two 'orses as bloody Saxons, Big Luke!”


Ambrose spoke to his companion. “Edgar, which one of these foolish Angles would you pick to die first?”


Edgar scanned the line of men before he answered. “Father, you once told me that you should kill the commanders first. You said that without a commanding officer, any force of warriors is no more than a bunch of individuals.”


Ambrose sighed. “So be it, my son! I bow to your wisdom.”


The prince raised his voice. “Big Luke, may God forgive you for what you tried to do this day, and may God forgive me for causing the death of a good Mercian warrior. War is coming and I would rather you had joined me again in the shield-wall against the Danes, but you have decided otherwise, and your widow is going to have to accept the consequences of your foolish decision.' Ambrose solemnly crossed himself. 'Go in peace, Big Luke.”


The Mercians were puzzled by Ambrose's loud words. Suddenly, however, Big Luke staggered, and red blossomed on his chest. He looked down and saw the feathers and shaft of an arrow buried deep in his chest. Within seconds, the thundering of more than one horse could be heard approaching. A giant warrior, armored and armed with a lance, came charging around the curve, while beside him was a caricature of a warrior. Gaunt, he carried neither sword nor bow, but his right hand held a lethal sliver of polished steel. Young Edgar and Ambrose started their horses forward simultaneously, the four of them joining and then smoothly forming a galloping wedge of horse flesh and sharp tips. The nine surviving Mercians, without a leader to steady them, broke and ran. They leapt for the shelter of the trees, and the four riders thundered past.


As they passed the last terrified Mercian, Phillip called out. “Prince, do we turn and kill them?”


Ambrose shouted back. “Nay, old friend! The poor devils are just trying to get their families through the winter. Let's put a few Roman miles between us, and I don't think that we will have to worry about them again. They already have at least one burial to attend to.”


Polonius spoke. “And two friends who are going to wake up with very bad headaches.”


“Then you didn’t have to kill them?”


Polonius smiled. “They foolishly stood in the middle of the road trying to figure out why you had left two perfectly good horses tied to a branch. Phillip and I just bonked them on the head, and down they went.”


“Then you think the rest will give us a wide berth?”


“Master, I hope that they have had enough, but I propose that tonight we sleep far off the road, and with no fire.”


Ambrose grimaced. “While I am forced to agree in the circumstances, Polonius-my-friend, you do know that sleeping in the bushes while my snug bedroll lies cold and empty in front of my eyes always makes me cranky.”


“I can think of several instances when such prudence saved all our lives, Master! If you are unhappy with the plan, my prince, then you can light a fire, but your bed will still be empty, because you will have to stand first watch!”


Young Edgar turned to his father and spoke. “Father, what are you two talking about?”


Ambrose sighed. “Once, in southern Italy, when we were returning to Britain from far-away Constantinople, we were spotted by a squad of Byzantine soldiers who were afraid to challenge us in the daylight. Instead, they got their friends and came like cowards in the night. They attacked the sleeping forms lying beside the campfire - except that Polonius had insisted that we stuff our bedrolls with branches and sleep in the bushes.”


Edgar looked at Polonius and then his father. “Then what happened?”


Ambrose smiled. “They savagely butchered our bedrolls, of course, but, unfortunately for them, the fire threw enough light that we were able to use our bows to exact revenge. We killed the lot of them.”


Polonius was riding nearby and spoke. “And what about the paid assassins who attacked us in Aosta?”


“My son, Polonius is trying to tell you that his ingenious trick has worked several times, and, yes, it has saved our lives. I just like to remind Lord Polonius that I hate to sleep on the cold ground, especially within sight of my warm bedroll.”
Edgar looked puzzled. “Even if it saves your life?”


Ambrose smiled. “I didn't say I wouldn't do it. When the scholar commands, I, a poor benighted barbarian Saxon prince, know better than to disobey! I just like to tell my friend that it makes me unhappy. Your mother has taught me that it is important to express my true feelings.”



CHAPTER 3


Ambrose Meets with Ethelflaed



The door of the chamber swung open, and the abbot of the monastery himself led his guests into the cavernous room. “Prince Ambrose, may I present to you Ethelflaed, our gracious queen of Mercia?”


Ethelflaed, known to most of her subjects as the 'Lady of the Mercians', turned and smiled. She moved past the abbot, several startled monks, and a pair of Mercian sentries, then locked Ambrose in a tight embrace.


“Uncle, you came! It is so good to see you!”


Ambrose hugged the queen of Mercia tight in return. “It is good to see you, too, Ethelflaed. I had no option. When the queen of Mercia commands, I must obey!”
“Since when does the greatest general in all Britain meekly obey the words of a simple woman?”


“Since the day I took a Mercian woman to my marriage bed, Little Buttercup! I quickly learned that it was most unwise not to heed the words of the women in my life . . . besides, your letter sounded important. It is not every day you summon your old uncle to your side. How could I in good conscience not obey such a summons?”
“Nevertheless, I thank you for coming, Uncle, and so promptly.”


Ambrose smiled. “I am always at your beck and call, Little Buttercup.”


Ethelflaed hesitated before she spoke. She finally let go of Prince Ambrose.
“I feel ten again, when you call me that, uncle-of-mine, and I am comforted. No one in Mercia dares call me anything but 'queen’, or 'my lady'.”


“That's because you are a queen, Little Buttercup, and a great one, but that is not why you have summoned me. The tone in your letter worried me.”


“Uncle . . . could we talk privately?”


“Of course! Should I ask Polonius to join us, or not?”


“Yes, please! I did not know if he had come with you.”


“I try not to let the rascal too far out of my sight. If your father and I were great generals, then I want to let all the world know that Polonius is the genius behind all of our successes. He tries to lurk unseen, but he is at the heart of every great victory we have ever achieved.”


Ethelflaed turned to the closest sentry. “Carl, please find Lord Polonius and ask him to join us, then take your fyrdmen to the kitchen to get a little food and mead. I will call for you when I have need of you again.”


The burly guard commander stamped to attention. “Yes, my queen!”


The queen turned next to the abbot. “My dear abbot, would you let me speak privately with my uncle here?”


The man looked chagrined. “But it would be improper to . . . of course, my queen, if you are sure that is what you wish.”


Within moments, Polonius entered the room, then hesitated as he stood before the regal queen of Mercia. He smiled. “Is it still acceptable for a poor scholar to hold a queen in his arms?”


Ethelflaed had a tear slide down her cheek as she gathered the thin Byzantine into her arms. “Come here, sir! For a brilliant scholar, you show surprisingly little knowledge of the opposite sex! Give me the hug that you used a thousand times to help a young and spoiled princess deal with being a little girl in a terrible man's world!”


Polonius held her tight. “It is a pleasure, Ethelflaed, but you are hardly a helpless little girl any more!”


“True, Lord Polonius, but there are also times I feel more helpless than when I was a little slip of a girl - especially without you two at my side to whisper good advice in my ear.”


Ambrose spoke. “Little Buttercup, you said that you wanted to meet with us, but without your brother at our side.”


“Aye, Uncle Ambrose. I desperately need your help.”


“Command, and we will obey!”


“It is not that simple, Uncle.”


“Then speak, and we will listen.”


“Uncle, you know that Ethelred is Edward's sworn man?”


“Of course! I was at the ceremonies when he formally recognized Alfred, and then Edward, as bretwalda.”


“But Ethelred is still sovereign king of Mercia.”


Ambrose nodded. “Against all odds, your husband tore part of old Mercia from King Guthrum and the Viking invaders, and he survived to make it into a strong Angle kingdom. I think that none would try and deny that basic and obvious truth.”


More tears rolled down Ethelflaed's cheeks. “But Edward now talks of ruling Mercia. There cannot be two kings on Mercia's throne. Ethelred is loyal, but his pride is hurt. He has accepted the role of subordinate ally, but he has not been conquered, nor has he agreed to give up his throne.”


Ambrose looked concerned. “What, exactly, has happened, Little Buttercup?”
“Edward has issued recent proclamations that name himself as king of Mercia. My husband is a proud man, and several of the Mercian ealdormen are furious at the slight. If Edward pushes too hard, then Mercia could rise against Wessex, and if it does . . . then I will stand proudly at my husband's side!”


Ambrose absently stroked his chin while he marshaled his thoughts. “Let me see if I understand what you are saying. I think I hear you telling me that Edward, in his enthusiasm, has pushed the matter of sovereignty too far, thus hurting the pride of your husband and angering powerful Mercians. If this issue is not satisfactorily resolved, your fear is that this could lead to a split, to the point where Ethelred would call up his fyrd and stand militarily against Edward.”


The tears flowed freely now. “That is it in a nutshell. Ethelred is loyal and faithful to his oath, but Edward has belittled him in the eyes of the Mercian ealdormen. If nothing changes, the people of Mercia will rise, whatever Ethelred says. I can see my brother leading an army against my husband, and you know as well as me that whoever wins that battle, it will still be a tragedy for us all! The Danes will cheerfully wait until both sides are weakened, and then sweep in, as they did with the rival kings Aelle and Osberht in Northumbria. If that happens, the last two Angelisc kingdoms in Britain will inevitably fall. Mercia needs Wessex, just as Wessex needs the brave fyrdmen of Mercia at its side.”


Ambrose nodded again. “Polonius - please correct me if I say something that is not true. Ethelflaed, in the short-term, I am not aware that Edward has any immediate designs on Mercia. Let us be clear, however. In the long-term, both he and your own father have stated categorically that the royal family of Wessex must rule all Britain. Edward, however, has accepted Ethelred as under-king, and I truly believe that he will hold to that oath. Ethelflaed, I think I can promise in your brother's name that you and your husband will reign in Mercia for your life, with no threat to your throne emanating from Wessex. In fact, the West Saxon fyrd will always fight at your side, against any enemy who attempts to unthrone you, just as it has done for the last twenty years . . . Polonius?”


“I know for a fact that Edward intends to try and conquer all of Britain. It was his father's plan and he feels that it is our only hope against the pagan Danes. He has never once, however, at least in my hearing, intimated that he intended to take the throne of Mercia while Ethelred and Ethelflaed yet live.”


Ethelflaed looked at the gaunt Byzantine and spoke in a low voice that was almost a whisper. “But I have a daughter, heir to the throne of Mercia.”


Ambrose spoke. “With your permission, I will ride directly to Edward's side, and I will request we formulate a formal agreement between the two kingdoms to clarify the succession. In return for support against the Danes of Jorvik and East Anglia - which your husband has given unstintingly for years - I will propose Edward guarantees you, in writing, the throne of Mercia for life. Would that help resolve your concerns and stifle Mercian discontent?”


Ethelflaed struggled with her tears and thoughts. At last she spoke in a whisper. “And after that?”


Ambrose replied reluctantly. “After that, I can promise nothing, Little Buttercup, except that your daughter will be provided for. If I am still alive when the time comes, I swear here and now that I will personally defend both her and her honor with my life. The battle we all face is with the Danes to the north and east - what is becoming known as the Danelaw. As you know, your cousin Ethelwold, the outlaw and traitor, rules Northumbria, and rumors are that he is even now planning moves against Essex. Mercia is where most of the battles will be fought, and the fyrdmen of Wessex will be coming north to help you fight the wars. It is vital that your daughter Elfwynn not be used as a tool to try and divide the Angles from the Saxons.”


Ethelflaed bit her lip. “There have been other under-kings under the West Saxon banner.”


The prince spoke. “Including my grandfather and your great-grandfather. All, however, are gone. My various brothers, when they held the throne, decided that the only hope against the endless waves of invaders was a single united country. Edward rules where once we had several under-kings. I believe Edward will allow such a trusted ally as Ethelred to rule for life, and you, for the love he has for you, but I doubt that he will extend Mercian self-rule much beyond that. Mercia is too important for his future plans, and don't forget that if Edward fails in his war, all of us will be slaves of the Viking invaders. I have worn a Viking slave collar before, and I intend to never let it happen to me again. If your people are forever safe from the Viking slavers, then the loss of self-rule is a small price to pay.”


Ethelflaed hugged her uncle again. “Will you explain to Edward how Ethelred feels? Edward is my brother, and Ethelred my husband. I find myself torn in two!”


Ambrose smiled. “I will ride directly to his side, Little Buttercup, and I will argue your case as eloquently as I can.”


“And my daughter?”


“I will ask, but I think we both know the answer. As you said, it is a man's world, and safety lies in having more blades than the enemy. A large army, under a single leader, stands a better chance than two, no matter how close the cooperation. I have to agree with Polonius. Edward intends to eventually unite all Britain under the dragon banner of Wessex.”


“But you will ask?”


“You know I will. This matter is vital to all of us, and I will make it a priority until it is amicably settled. We have far too many enemies out there to start fighting amongst ourselves!”


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