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

"I love this series."

"Enjoyed the historical aspect and a good story line."

"Well written historical fiction. I would recommend it to others."

"Great reading with some historical info."


When this story starts, Ethelflaed, the ‘Lady of Mercia’, former wife of King Ethelred of Mercia and daughter of Alfred the Great, has died, just months before she, and her brother Edward, were about to achieve their father’s dream of making Wessex the preeminent power in Britain. The Mercians, under Ethelflaed, and the West Saxons, under her brother Edward, have pushed northward toward the Humber River. Viking town after Viking town has fallen to their conquering armies, and for the first time in more than fifty years, most of Britain is again subservient to an Angelisc king.

Much of this story is conjecture. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reports that, six months after the death of the ‘Lady of Mercia’, Edward ordered the daughter, Elfwynn, to appear in front of him in Wessex, where he stripped her of all powers as ruler of Mercia. In a second version, Edward rode directly to Tamworth after Ethelflaed’s death and presumably took control of Mercia. I suspect that there is a complicated story behind those simple, and conflicting, sentences. In this story I have tried to suggest a plausible scenario.

Which story is true? I have no way of knowing, and that is the joy of being a historical novel writer. I get to use my imagination to weave my story around the skeleton of historical facts.

As always, 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. Betlic did not exist, though Ingimund did. That being said, I went to great lengths to keep the story as historically accurate as I could. Individual words in italics generally have special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix I. I have tried to separate fact from fiction in the timeline (see Appendix II). Here is the story. I hope that you enjoy it!

The author,
Bruce Corbett


The Princess Who Would be Queen

On the morning after the death of his favorite niece, Queen Ethelflaed of Mercia, Ambrose rose with a pounding head and a full bladder. He had drunk heavily the night before, trying to deaden his sense of loss, and he had succeeded only too well. Leaving Edgar and Polonius asleep, he stumbled out of the bower they slept in and padded across the main chamber of the Great Hall where the king and queen of Mercia resided when they were in their northern tun of Tamworth. Ambrose’s head ached abominably and the room stank of vomit and spilled mead, neither of which helped to calm his stomach.

The prince headed straight for the door that led to sunlight, fresh air, and the much-needed privy. As he staggered through the semi-darkness of the big room, he sensed with his warrior’s instinct that he was not alone. While his hand instinctively slipped to the hilt of his sax, he scanned the room for a second presence. He could feel eyes burning into him from the seat-of-honor at the far end of the room, and he turned to face Princess Elfwynn, alone in the semi-darkness and sitting on her mother’s ornate chair. She was glaring at her great-uncle.

She spoke quietly. “I take note, Daneslayer, that you do not deign to bow to the new queen of Mercia on the very first day of my reign.”

Ambrose turned his body completely and stared back at the young woman as he replied. “First of all, Elfwynn, I just realized that you were in the room. Second, I long-ago swore to Almighty God that I would only bow to my sworn monarch, who happens to be the king of Wessex. That king is called Edward, son of Alfred - and your uncle. Even the emperor of the mighty Eastern Roman Empire accepted that this body would bow to no other kings, and he gave me a special exemption from prostrating myself when in his august presence. Third, my ‘Little Buttercup’ - your mother - expected a hug from me, not a bow, and fourth, while you may plant your bottom on your mother’s throne as often as you wish, it is not going to change the fact that it is not your destiny to rule as queen of Mercia.”

Elfwynn pouted. “As you say, I am sitting on the throne that my father and then my mother planted their royal bottoms on. I have no brother or sister, so that makes me next in line for the throne. In my eyes, that makes me queen, whatever an old, grumpy and hung-over West Saxon atheling has to say about it!”

Ambrose attempted to curb his rising temper, but his head hurt and he was not thinking at all clearly. He spoke sharply. “Little girl, you do not seem to have heard your mother’s last words to you from her deathbed, and, further, you seem to be woefully ignorant of your own country’s history!”

“I know that my father conquered Mercia and held the Vikings at bay! Even a hung-over West Saxon atheling must be aware of that!”

Ambrose sighed before he spoke. “Elfwynn, it is indisputably true that your father managed to carve off a considerable chunk of Mercia, valiantly holding off the rapacious warriors of the first king Guthrum and his Viking Great Army.

When Guthrum gathered his forces and threatened to overwhelm your father’s frail kingdom, however, your father saw that his only chance of survival - for all Mercians - was to bow his knee to my brother Alfred. Alfred accepted him as under-king, allowed him to marry his beloved daughter, your mother, and sent thousands of brave West Saxon fyrdmen north to help fend off the ravaging Danes.”

Elfwynn rudely interrupted. “Is there a point to this lecture, Great-uncle?”

“Actually, yes. Except for those valiant West Saxon warriors, you would probably now be some jarl’s sexual plaything, wearing an iron collar and raped and abused as it amused your master. You seem to have forgotten, girl, that your father bought your freedom, and that of your subjects, with an oath of allegiance and obedience to the crown of Wessex.”

“But my mother ruled Mercia as queen!”

“Aye, she did, because of the generosity of her brother Edward. Even your precious Mercian Witan had no intention of allowing such an outrageous thing, but Edward filled the streets of Gloucester with his armed fyrdmen and told the council that it had but two choices; Mercia could be formally annexed forthwith to Wessex, or they could agree to let your mother rule.”

The princess looked up with a triumphant smile. “Then, as you say, we are past any childish prejudice against a female ruler and the precedent is set. Why can I not follow in my mother’s steps? I think I am fully prepared to accept the role of under-queen.”

“Your mother, Elfwynn, was a truly exceptional woman. I cannot think of even one other queen who ruled on her own in all of our Anglish history. In spite of all her proven skills, however, many refused to accept your mother as ruler. In the end, it took the threat of outright annexation, those armed West Saxon fyrdmen in the streets of your capital, and the kidnaping of the sons of most of the Mercian ealdormen to convince Mercia’s Witan to agree to the naming of your mother as ruler.

It was then made very clear that Edward was allowing your mother to rule because of his love for her and a previous promise he had made her, but he made it clear at the time that she would be the last independent ruler of Mercia. Your mother, by the way, was very concerned about your future. She pleaded your case eloquently, which I duly presented to Edward.

As I just said, King Edward agreed to let your mother rule, but reiterated that Mercia and Wessex had to eventually become one if we are ever going to have the strength to conquer the Viking kingdoms that have given us so much grief over the years. That’s when he declared that your mother was going to be the last independent ruler and, at her death, Mercia would be formally annexed to Wessex. Edward is the king of Mercia, and he has spoken. It is our duty to obey.”

Tears slid silently down Elfwynn’s cheeks. “Then . . . then what happens to me?”

“Elfwynn, you know that your uncle will take care of you. You could join a religious order, you could ask your uncle to find a suitable mate for you, or you could take your mother’s treasure and live a life of luxury somewhere in Wessex.”

“Not in Mercia?”

“It is possible that Edward would allow it, but it would leave you open to possible manipulation.”

Suddenly Elfwynn’s face went red and she spoke angrily. “My life has been settled and my dear uncle has not even deigned to show his face here!”

“Elfwynn, you know very well that Edward is occupied in the northern borderlands, moving against the last two remaining Danish centers south of the Humber River, Nottingham and Lincoln. If he wasn’t, he would be here now. The messenger birds flew while your mother yet drew breath, and Edward has already sent an answer to your complaint. As soon as he can get away, our king will be traveling to Gloucester, where he expects to find us.”

“Why Gloucester?”

“Because, Elfwynn, your mother’s last wish was that she be buried at St. Oswald’s Priory, beside your father and near the blessed bones of St. Oswald. Polonius will meet today with your mother’s steward and arrange for the transportation of your mother’s body and the rest of the royal court. We should be ready to head south by dawn tomorrow.

Be aware that King Edward will expect an oath of obedience from you and all of your mother’s counselors shortly after he arrives at Gloucester. In the meantime, listen carefully to your great-uncle’s words. Rule well in Edward’s name, until he can come in person, and you may yet be able to influence events in Mercia.

Continue to defy his authority with the nonsense you are spouting today, however, and you will face a very unhappy and uncertain future. Your very life could be at risk.”

Elfwynn looked at the old man and sighed. “I know that you are a great warrior and have done much for Mercia, Prince Ambrose. You and your wizard friend have led our armies to countless victories. I respect you for that and appreciate your efforts, but I must also listen to the will of the Mercian Witan. It is that council, and only that council, that has the final say when it comes to choosing the next ruler of this land. I have heard your words, however, Daneslayer, and will give thought to them.”

“Just remember, Elfwynn - when your father died, Ealdorman Betlic attempted to put one of your male cousins, Ealdorman Adelfrid, an easily manipulated fool, on the throne in place of your mother. He argued against a woman ruling, even though your mother had already been effectively ruling Mercia for some ten years or more while your father struggled with his illness. Betlic is not the voice of the Witan, and he does nothing for the good of Mercia. Do not let him manipulate you. It is a certainty that he will try.”

“I said that I would think on your words, Great-uncle. At this moment, I think that I just want to be alone to grieve for my mother! Your presence is no longer required here.”

Biting back sharp words, Ambrose turned and headed for the door and fresh air.


Edward Arrives

The sounds of the sentries’ horns reverberated throughout the north Mercian burh. Fyrdmen grabbed armor and weapons and ran for the walls. The single note, repeated three times, was an alert, and it generally meant that a large body of armed men had been spotted. The sudden appearance of a large body of armed men, in the Severn Valley in the Year of our Lord 918, was never a time for complacency.

The mysterious column of armed men slowly approached, and eventually the sharpest eyed sentry was able to make out the royal dragon of Wessex on the advancing banners. The ponderous gates swung open again, and the notables of the Angle kingdom gathered just outside the gate to greet Edward, king of Wessex, Essex, Sussex, Kent and Cornwall, bretwalda of most of the rest of Britain below the Humber River, and heir apparent to the Mercian crown.

The king was an imposing man in his gleaming armor and royal crown. Behind him rode a long column of veteran Saxon fyrdmen. All were tired, and, unlike the king, whose mail had been sand polished to a gleaming shine, their clothes and armor were dusty, dented, and rusty. They were veteran warriors who had just spent a long summer seizing Viking strongholds to the north and east. The king swung wearily down from his horse when he reached Elfwynn, and he hugged his niece tight.
“I am sorry for your loss, Elfwynn. I know that I am too late for the funeral, but I hope that we can pray together at your mother’s grave. I was blessed to have such a sister, and you to have such a mother. Come, walk with me and tell me the news.”


Edward stared down from the ornately carved throne at all the Mercian noblemen and dignitaries who were gathered in the main chamber of Gloucester’s royal palace. Finally, he addressed the crowd.

“I speak to you now as the heir to the throne of Mercia. I claim that right as bretwalda and by treaty, duly signed by both King Ethelred and Queen Ethelflaed. Is there anyone here who dares to dispute my claim?”

He scanned the crowd slowly. ‘No? Then I expect all present to kneel and swear allegiance to me today - here and now!”

A voice piped up from within a group of noblemen. “I recognize your claim, King, but what you ask of me today is quite impossible.”

“Edward glared at the crowd, but spoke quietly. “Show yourself, sir, and explain!”

A thin man, dressed in the garments of a wealthy thane, stepped out from the crowd. “Sire, I think I speak for many here. Under the laws of Mercia, only a formal coronation, held after all the country’s ealdormen, royal advisors and church leaders have met and voted on the choice of king, is binding in the eyes of God and all the Mercian people. Until those two events have taken place, it would be a sin in the eyes of God for me to swear an oath of loyalty to you.”

Edward replied. “The Witan is not required to meet, since I have been, in fact, over-king of Mercia for many years, but have only now decided to claim my well-established and legal rights. As to the coronation, you are quite right, and I hereby declare that my coronation day is to be the tenth of May, or, for those who still use our ancestors’ old calendar, Thrimilce. I will expect all men who hold high office in the kingdom to be here on that date, if they wish to have their titles and deeds to their lands confirmed. On that day I will be officially crowned king of Mercia according to your ancient laws and customs.

Unfortunately, duty calls and I must soon leave again. I am in the midst of a campaign against the last of the Viking holdouts south of the Humber river, and I must return to my campaign quickly, or all our blood and sweat this spring will have gone for naught.

In the meantime, I am asking my niece here, Princess Elfwynn, to rule in my name. I expect you to obey an order from her as if it was issued from my mouth.”


Word from Mercia

As the first snow of the season began to settle on the muddy streets of Winchester, an exhausted courier galloped out of the darkness and into the square fronting the king’s royal palace. The man almost collapsed as he dismounted, and two guards ran forward to steady him, while two others brought flaming torches. The courier quickly recovered his balance, however, and, shaking off the men who had rushed to steady him, he staggered to the entrance of the king’s planning room.

Seeing the man’s clothing, his expression, and his message pouch in the light of the flickering torches, the two sentries guarding the door swiftly swung the heavy door open and then stood aside. The courier, uncertain what to do next, stopped just inside the doorway, soaked and still gasping for air. Ambrose and Polonius, startled by the sudden entry, rose to their feet and stared at the armed intruder, but quickly relaxed when they spotted the leather courier pouch. Edgar and Apion, already on their feet, moved unobtrusively between the man and their fathers.

The courier spotted Polonius and held out the leather pouch. “Lord Polonius, I have an urgent message for you from Prince Athelstan! There is serious trouble in the north!”

Looking alarmed, Polonius took the message out of the leather pouch, broke the seal, and unrolled the parchment. He read for a moment, and then looked directly at Ambrose. “Master, would you be so kind as to rouse King Edward?”

Ambrose looked shocked. “It is serious enough that you would send a royal atheling to wake a sleeping king?”

Polonius allowed a ghost of a smile to flit across his face. “Better an important royal atheling than a poor Byzantine former-slave, kind master! We have mutiny in the north. Yes, it is that important!”

Ambrose stared in surprise at his old friend. “I think that you have a poor memory, my scholarly friend. I seem to remember that my slave collar was remarkably similar to yours, but for that news, I will risk life and limb in waking the sleeping lion - as my humble Byzantine servant commands!”

Edward appeared within minutes, looking disheveled, but fully awake At his side strode Elfweard, his second son. The boy spoke angrily. “In the name of Mary, mother of God, why would you wake my father in the middle of the night? He is not happy to be so disturbed!”

Edward glared at his son. “Elfweard, I am quite capable of expressing my dissatisfaction without you as translator and mind reader. Do not presume to interrupt your elders again! Polonius, Ambrose tells me that you have urgent news for me?”

“A messenger has just arrived from London, Sire. He was frozen and I am told that his horse was half dead. I just sent the man for some food and a taste of mead. He seemed ready for . . .”

Edward sighed and interrupted. “Yes, yes, but what is the message?”

“Of course, Sire, I was just getting to that! Athelstan reports that the Mercian Witan met in Gloucester several days ago, and they have declared Elfwynn to be the ruling queen of Mercia, effective immediately!”

“What about Athelstan? Is he safe?”

Polonius replied. “He sent the message and then went into hiding, Sire. The word was that he was following the courier south by a circuitous route. Betlic’s men are actively looking for anyone who might be supportive of Edward’s claim.”

“I pray to God that the boy is safe! Send me word as soon as you hear anything!’
Edward’s face reddened. ‘Now to this damned report! The entire Witan did not meet, since the pair of you and Athelstan are members of the Mercian Witan, and you yourself recently reported to me that some of the other ealdormen are home seeing to their shires!”

Polonius replied. “No, Sire. More likely it was a cabal of Betlic’s friends and supporters, and the rest of us were not asked to attend because it would have been inconvenient for them to have members there who did not support the selection of Elfwynn.”

The king spoke. “So the sly bastards waited until they were a clear majority in Gloucester, and then they waited for the first serious snowstorm of the winter before acting! By Mother Mary! I will concede that that little trick could keep the West Saxon winter fyrd in their quarters for days, weeks, or possibly even months. If we are lucky in the next seven-night or two, then the snow will melt. It will be warm enough to march an army north, but with too much warmth, the roads will quickly turn into impassable quagmires.”

Ambrose smiled and asked the obvious question. “And if we are unlucky?”
“If we are unlucky, the cold will hold and the men will suffer frostbite on the march.’ Edward sighed. ‘This little trick may buy the fools a little time, but their timing changes nothing except that it delays the arrival of my army! Mercian heads will roll for this! Did Athelstan report who is behind this foolishness?”

Most in the room stared carefully at the ground, until Ambrose spoke out. “I spoke with Elfwynn after her mother’s funeral, and although she was unhappy about your annexation, I think I made it abundantly clear that she would not be allowed to ascend the throne. I did say that if she managed the capital well until you could arrive for your May coronation, then you might find a use for her.”

Edward replied. “And I as much as told her the same thing before the assembled lords and ealdormen when I addressed them. Well, she has very effectively settled that, and to her detriment. She is a shallow girl - not like her mother. I don’t think that she has the balls, however, to do this on her own.”

Polonius nodded. “I would have to agree, Sire. Athelstan sent the original message to London with one of our feathered friends, so he could not write a lot. To my way of thinking, this has all the earmarks of Ealdorman Betlic and his friends.”

Edward paced the floor for a full minute before he replied. “With us in the middle of our first snowstorm of the winter, it is hardly the time to call up and lead a large army north.’

Edward flushed, and his voice rose in anger. ‘Though, by God, we will invade Mercia as soon as the weather allows us to march! We will call up our sworn Welshmen and my new subjects in the Danelaw. Combined with our Saxon fyrd, we will outnumber the bastards several fold. I will teach Mercia to rebel against its rightful king!”

Polonius sighed. Unlike Alfred, Edward had a fiery temper. The Byzantine knew that he was going to have to use all his persuasive skills to prevent an over-reaction. “Sire, if you call together all your forces for an invasion, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome, but I would like to urge caution.”

“Caution, Spymaster! An treacherous ealdorman, his minions, and a little slip of a girl have attempted to steal an entire kingdom from me! My sworn men outnumber the Mercian rebels by three or four to one, and I have two of the best generals in Britain at my side. In fact, Wizard, you are the very one who taught me that it was important to react quickly and forcefully. Didn’t your old friend Sun Tzu not say that ‘cleverness has never been associated with long delays’? Why, in the name of God, would you suddenly urge delay at this time?”

“It is not in the timing, Sire, that I am concerned about. It is with the size of the reaction.’

Polonius smiled as he continued. ‘You may remember, King, that the ancient Chinese general you are quoting also said that ‘the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.’”

Edward sighed, and Polonius could see that he was already calming. The king spoke.
“I think that you are trying to tell me something in your usual inimitable fashion, Scholar. Skip the Byzantine subtlety. Say it in plain words!”

“Sire, if you bring your full force to bear, you will win the battle, but the victory could easily end up being an unmitigated disaster.”

“Disaster? What is disastrous about victory? Help a simple barbarian king understand the devious Byzantine thinking process!”

Polonius frowned. “It has little to do with my countrymen far to the east, Sire! Think about it. The Danes, Norsemen and Welshmen you call up have little love for the Angles of Mercia. Given the chance, they will happily loot and kill their old enemies, and it will all be sanctioned by you! Our own Saxon armies, no matter how tightly we try and restrain them, will, at the very least, strip the country bare in order to feed themselves. If the Mercians are smart and stay within their defensive burhs, we could take heavy casualties overwhelming the strongholds - the one thing Sun Tzu cautions that you should never do. Further, when we are done, you will have left a legacy of hatred and bitterness amongst our cousins and former friends that will take many, many years to erase.

Equally important, if both we and Mercia lose a lot of our best warriors in battle, then we could be fatally weakened, and you can be sure that the Norse settlers, under Ragnald, are well aware of what is going on in Mercia. Remember, too, that the Danes of Jorvik swore allegiance to Ethelflaed just last spring. We do not know yet who they would fight for.

Their southern cousins have been surrendering in droves to our combined Mercian and West Saxon armies, but that does not mean that they are happy with a Saxon as ruler. They just might be quietly helping Betlic and his minions. It would certainly be to their advantage to sow discord. A split between Mercia and Wessex would be one of the best things that could happen, from their point of view.”

“Then you are saying that I should just let a few fools steal my kingdom from me?”

“Quite the contrary, Sire. I propose we trim the fingernail, rather than cut off the entire appendage.”

Edward looked at Polonius and took several calming breaths before speaking. At last he sighed and replied. “I concede that a full-scale invasion could easily become a victory like that of your other old friend, King Pyrrhus of Epirus. What I need to hear from your lips, therefore, is an alternate solution that I can live with.”

Elfweard tried again. “Nothing succeeds like the application of ruthless force, father! All wise men will attest to that!”

Edward snapped. “You will not interrupt your elders again, boy, if you know what is good for you! Ambrose?”

Ambrose spoke. “Nephew, I would suggest that we follow the advice of the learned Sun Tzu, and fight smart. Polonius, can you quietly send couriers to the various Mercian ealdormen?”

Edward interrupted. “To what end, Uncle?”

Ambrose continued. “It would be good to know who will openly rally to our side, which burh commanders will at least willingly surrender when the west Saxon fyrd arrives outside of their gates . . . and who we might have to kill in order to return tranquility to Mercia.”
Edward ceased pacing for a minute. “Polonius, my heart tells me to ruthlessly crush the lying bastards who pretend to be ready to swear allegiance to me and then betray me the first chance they get. My brain, however, tells me that, as usual, the pair of you are a voice of reason and I should heed your advice. And Ambrose, as the first step in our new plan of selective trimming, I would like you and Polonius to see if you two can find a way to somehow bring Elfwynn to Winchester. Perhaps the smartest thing we can do is to quietly smuggle her south. Betlic, without a royal figurehead with which to unite the Mercians, should have little chance of rallying sufficient support for a serious uprising.

I want Elfwynn standing in front of me here, preferably before spring. Be warned, however. If she is not standing here before the geese fly north, then, by Almighty God, my army will go north and ruthlessly hammer any Mercians who are not true to their oath, whatever the risk and the cost. I will be ruler in Mercia. In this I am determined.”

Ambrose nodded. “Understood, Sire. Do I treat Elfwynn as a queen, or use chains on her?”

“I am tempted to suggest the executioner’s axe. The little brat just might yet force a bloody war between Mercians and West Saxons, at the very time that the last of the Viking strongholds south of the Humber River have fallen either to our armies or to Polonius’ clever diplomacy.”

Ambrose frowned. “I must remind you, my king, that I promised your sister that I would personally take care of Elfwynn and make sure that she is safe.”
“Uncle, are you pleading for the bitch’s life?”

“I am furious at her apparent betrayal of her oath to you, but she is a young and foolish girl. Yes, I am pleading for you to spare her life. I made a pledge, in your name, to your own sweet sister, which you later endorsed. How can I, in good conscience, not ask you to honor my pledge?”

“Uncle, in all the years of your faithful service, you have never asked a boon of me. Ask me for land or wealth or titles, and they are yours! You are beloved to me, and I will not refuse any request you make, but I am very angry at her betrayal.’ He took several deep breaths and sighed. ‘Very well. She lives, but she will be your burden. Find a quiet corner of Wessex and surround her with guards personally loyal to me, or make her abbess of a nunnery.

After I speak to her, she will not be welcome to remain at my court. Equally important, and you may quote me on this, if she ever crosses back into Mercia without my express permission, I will not hesitate to separate her head from her body. I know! Better yet, find some lordling far away who needs a wife, and marry her off. The Franks have several royal houses now. Perhaps some prince on the Continent has need of a virgin princess. I would even be pleased to provide a generous dowry!’

The king sighed again. ‘All right. In the name of blessed Ethelflaed - treat Elfwynn as an honored guest! If you need chains to bring her, however, you have my permission to use them. I would like you to use as little force as possible, but do not hesitate to use what is needed. Most important, and I know this will sit hard with you, if you cannot spirit her across the border, you must not let her fall into Betlic’s hands again. Am I being sufficiently clear?”

“I must not leave her alive if it looks like we are going to be captured or overwhelmed.”

“Precisely. This command must take precedence, whatever you promised my dear sister.

Polonius speaks the truth. The alternative is a full-scale invasion, where cousins will kill cousins, many brave men will die on both sides, and the human wolves to the north will be licking their chops and waiting for their chance at the scraps.’
Edward paused for effect. ‘Are we agreed, Uncle?”

“Aye, I would feel great reluctance, but I am forced to accept that the death of one girl is better than that of thousands of innocent men in a war that just serves to help our enemies conquer us.”


Ambrose waited until Apion and Edgar joined him and Polonius at the map table. He looked at each in turn. “Well, young warriors, Edward agrees with us that the key to the whole rebellion is Elfwynn, and it seems that it is up to us to take her out of the equation.”

Edgar looked puzzled. “Father, why do you and Lord Polonius think that she is the key to settling this mutiny? We both know that Ealdorman Betlic is the one behind this outrage.”

“My son, if the Mercian rebellion is to succeed, it needs a symbol that all of Mercia can rally to. Although Betlic rules the northern marches with an iron hand and is one of the most powerful ealdormen in Mercia, he is hardly beloved even within his own shire. That means that the unifying symbol can only be Elfwynn, daughter of a greatly respected and beloved queen.”

Edgar looked thoughtful. “Ealdorman Betlic has a few drops of royal blood in his veins. Does that not make him eligible to be appointed as king?”

Ambrose nodded. “It does, but without Elfwynn at his side, I think he would find that he has relatively little support against Edward. The Mercian ealdormen are not fools, even those who hate us. They swore an oath of obedience before God. They know Edward’s iron will, they know the size and fighting prowess of the West-Saxon fyrd, and they know Edward’s probable reaction to Elfwynn’s ascension onto the throne. I would be surprised if more than a few of them would be willing to bet their fortunes and their very lives on Betlic overcoming Edward.”

“But with Elfwynn ruling as queen?”

“That could drastically change the situation. As I said, her mother was much loved, and Elfwynn could easily become a unifying symbol. Remember, these are the stiff-necked people who built Offa’s dyke! What incredible effort did it take to built a wall and ditch almost two hundred Roman miles long? If Betlic makes an appeal to their Mercian pride, the majority just might rally to the cause of independence under Elfwynn.”

Apion spoke. “Then how, Prince, do we, as you say, ‘take her out of the equation’?”

Ambrose looked in turn at each member of his little group. “I think that we have two choices. The first is to let Edward march north with the army in the spring. They will burn and loot their way through the hostile shires, only pausing to besiege the fortified tuns that refuse to surrender. Once he reaches Gloucester, Edward will settle down to a siege, and, after he breaches the walls and kills all who would stop him, he will seize both Betlic and the would-be-queen.”

Edgar looked worried. “Father, Polonius has already alluded to that. Such treatment of former allies is just as likely to stiffen resistance, and, even if it doesn’t, we are still destroying our own future tuns and killing our own future subjects.”

Ambrose nodded. “Not to mention the casualties our own men will suffer. The Mercians are tough warriors who have had ample chances to hone their fighting skills.”

Edgar tried again. “I think that you are saying that a West Saxon invasion is a poor second choice. So how do you want to deal with Elfwynn?”

Ambrose smiled and turned to the Byzantine scholar. “Polonius?”

“Prince, since you do not want her dead, I would propose that we kidnap her. Between us, we have a remarkably good record of successful kidnaping capers.”

Ambrose smiled. “Kidnaping is a harsh word, Polonius, and so at odds with your usual Byzantine subtlety. Well, I suppose it is true that we did ‘recruit’ the current ealdorman of Cornwall when he was but a young buck and his father was thinking of making common cause with the Viking invaders at the time.”

Polonius smiled. “And what of the lovely Aesa, the wife of the former king of Dublin, along with all her children?”

“That was necessary to save Edgar’s life! Besides, who engineered the kidnaping of all the students of the Mercian royal school, right after the death of King Ethelred?”
“Master, for shame! You know that the lads were formally invited to visit Winchester by the king of Wessex, and were merely taken on an extended tour of the royal school!”

“Where they sat until their fathers had voted for Ethelflaed as queen . . . So what are you thinking now, my Byzantine rascal?”

“Hmm. I propose we send a small fleet to southern Wales, hide the ships up one of the rivers or in one of the bays, and then we send a few pilgrims through the snow and up the Severn River Valley to Gloucester.”

“Does one of these pilgrims carry a mysterious sword, and is the other often called ‘wizard’?”

Polonius smiled. “Master, it is as if you are reading my mind.”

Ambrose smiled in return. “You know, now that you mention it, I do feel a sudden urge to pray over St. Oswald’s bones and perhaps talk with our old friend, Father Putnam.”

Edgar looked concerned. “Father, I hope that you will not take this the wrong way, but you are both now of ‘mature years’. You have risked your life countless times over many years. Is it not time for younger men to step forward and shoulder some of the responsibility for the kingdom?”

A ghost of a smile flitted over Ambrose’s face. “You can say it without offending my sensibilities, son-of-mine. Our minds hold a wealth of experience and knowledge that you youngsters cannot claim for many years, but our bodies betray us. I am not ‘of mature years’. I am old, and friend Polonius is even older.”

“Then I rest my case, father. To march in winter, through snow or mud - that is a job for young men.”

“Do not think for one second, Edgar, that you are going to be allowed to shirk your duty. I would like you and Apion at my side when I make my holy pilgrimage.”

“Father, the pair of you have stiff or sore joints, and Lord Polonius doesn’t stop shivering until early summer! Why are you insistent on taking this risk when there are others who wouldd be proud to go in your stead?”

“My son, several times in my life, I have been asked if I would consider ruling Wessex as king. Each time, I refused to let them put my name forward. When I returned to Wessex after my adventures in the east, I told my half-brother, Ethelred, who was reigning at the time, that I wanted no more than to be given the opportunity to devote my life to defending Wessex. At that time, I dedicated my life to the well-being of our realm.

I am beginning to understand, however, what Phillip was going through just before he died his heroic death. I have no wish to die from the ‘rusty sword in the hands of some barbarian’ that Polonius regularly refers to, but neither do I have much desire to lie in my own filth and vomit as I slowly expire. At some point in your life, a quick death in battle becomes more to be envied than the alternative.”

“But father . . .”

“Fear not, Edgar. I am not planning on doing anything rash or foolish, but I will strive to help Wessex in any way I can - until I can’t, or I am killed. Death no longer frightens me. I have lived a long and good life, and if it is time for me to meet my Heavenly Maker, then so be it.”

Polonius spoke. “Did you know, Edgar, that the best soldiers are the very young and the old?”

“Why do you say that, Lord Polonius?”

Polonius replied. “I don’t mean that they are the best fighters, but they have the best attitude. The young don’t believe that they can die, and the old almost welcome it. There are far worse deaths than standing with boon companions at your side, with a sword in your hand, and fighting for something that you believe in.”

Edgar smiled. “This from a man who fears barbarians with rusty swords?”

“Even an aged Byzantine can change his mind, young cock! You will only truly understand when you are my age.”


Polonius turned toward Ambrose and spoke. “And, Prince, have you thought how we are going to defend ourselves if we are attacked by Betlic’s minions, or even outlaws?”

“Even pilgrims carry weapons, Scholar. Anyone who travels the roads of Britain without weapons is very foolish and very liable to die of unnatural causes!”

Polonius smiled. “Most pilgrims do not wear expensive chainmail, Prince! Not only will chainmail scream to the world that we are not really pilgrims, but it can be very cold to wear on a bitter winter day.”

“Then we consider wearing leather armor.”

“It may be better than nothing, but leather is just not sturdy enough turn an enemy blade, my prince.”

Ambrose sighed. “You are much too happy pointing out our problems, my friend. Somewhere far back in my brain is an inkling that you are trying to tell me something.”

Polonius smiled.“I thought that you would never ask, and you are quite right. I have indeed come up with a solution. It is the linothorax.”

Edgar looked puzzled and interrupted. “Is that not the name of the linen armor you made some years ago, Scholar?”

Polonius frowned. “You laughed, but armor made of linen protected the mighty Alexander of Macedon, Edgar. It is lightweight, it turns a blade as well as iron, it is more easily hidden beneath our cloaks, and it will even help keep us warm!”

Ambrose smiled. “I must admit, my friend, even after the miraculous success of your ‘horo’, I was not convinced that simple layers of cloth could adequately protect a man.”


“Until, you rascal, you made me swing Victory-Maker at the linothorax after you put it on.”


“And, as you promised, the linen armor stopped my blade cold.”

“Then it is settled?”

“To work, Scholar! We will need over a dozen linothoraxes within just a few days!”

Polonius smiled. “I will scrounge up some assistants and get to work! With help, I can make twenty vests in less time than a blacksmith could make a single chainmail shirt!”

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