2. Extract from Lord of Horses (unfinished novel)
If you look east from the burial mound of my father Eormanwulf, who was known as Lussa, above the valley of the river the wealh (Britons) named the Dour, you can see the sea; and if the dawn is clear then Earendel, brightest of stars, rising from the waters, climbs the brow of the downs across the river bringing with him the light of the new dawn, for always does the sun follow Earendel, harbinger of day. Often I have sat in this place, beside the embers of my fire, and felt my spirits lift at the sight of that star, knowing the long hours of dark have passed and the light is soon to come.
I, Aethelwulf, am named from my father Eormenwulf who was the son of Oeric, the brother of Oisc from whom the Kings of Kent, the Oiscingas, are named. I am of the Royal blood, for I am great grandson of Ochta who fought the Britons at Badon, and great great grandson of Hengist the Jute, the first of our kin to come this new land from the Old Country across the whale’s road, so the bards tell it. But my mother was the daughter of a Jutish noble and his British wife, for though no Wealh man may marry a Jute it is permitted for a Jutish man to marry a Wealh woman; and my grandmother was of high rank among the wealh - her father was of Roman stock and her mother the daughter of a Frisian sea captain – and from her I inherited my dark hair and love of the sea.
As a boy I was quick witted, with a good ear both for song and speech. I conversed equally well in Frankish as I did in my father’s Jutish tongue, and from my mother’s mother I learned some of the words of the wealh, what little of it I heard, for then all men were keen to adopt our Germanic ways, and now there are none alive who spoke it as their first tongue. I was trained in war yet had little use for such skill as a youth; the wars with the wealh were fought far in the west. My great grandfather Octa had fought the wealh beyond the land now belonging to the West Saxons, but the wealh had united and drove him back to Kent, else we Oiscingas may have been rulers of all Britain. Peace had ensued for the next few generations, and though war was often on the wind, in Kent it seemed far away. Here we sat idle, talking of the old country and its heroes and my skill with the harp proved of more use than my skill with a spear. In my imagination, if not my body, I travelled the breadth of Old Germania side by side with all the heroes under heaven. I learned from the bards the old tales: of Eormanric the Goth, grim and tragic; of Aetla the Hun who fought the Goths at Wistla-wudu (the forest by the Vistula); of Offa the Angle who fought the Myrgings at Monsters’ Door (the Eider) and of the wars in Francia between the Gibichungs and Wolsungs.
When I was a boy the Franks across the sea to our south were kin; we had little to fear from them. But the friendship has grown uneasy. Gone are the days when we aped Frankish ways or derived our glory from being a skein of their royal house, which in our day has grown degenerate. We are our own kings, not vassals of the sons of Meroweoh; we forget our Frankish blood and honour our Jutish ancestors who were never subject to Rome. Thus the Oiscingas now claim descent from Hengist the Jute alone, as if we sprang from one man’s loins, like those who claim descent from King Sheaf of the Old Country, who arrived alone in his rudderless boat from regions unknown to the lands now ruled by the Spear Danes, (though the poets know that Sheaf and Ing are one, and that the boat that brought Sheaf to shore across the sea is but the sun, Ing’s chariot, whose heat indeed brings the sheaf of barley to the fields – but this is a mystery of which the long-haired priests of Ing, the son, once sang, but which is now little remembered.)
I never knew my grandfather Oeric for he died before I was born. But often my father told me of his burial at the court at Thengelsham (home of the Prince), close to the royal hall at Eastorege (East-district), the first of the royal blood of Kent to be buried under a great mound as was then the Frankish way. Today it is common, though its time is ending as the Old religion passes into memory. Thengelsham overlooks the salt-marsh and an inlet of the sea, and my memory of the place is always accompanied by the cry of the gull and curlew. My father was but ten years old when my grandfather died aged twenty five years, no age for an Oiscinga who are long-lived, and he died of fever, not in war. They laid him out in an embroidered tunic from Byzantium, and a bearskin cloak from a beast he had hunted as a youth; a gold and garnet buckle lay at his waist, and at his side his father’s silver-hilted sword that had slain many wealh nobles at the siege of the hill of Badon. It took the men many days to raise the mound, for he died on the Night of the Mothers (Midwinter) and the turf was like stone. It was a bitter winter that year; in the month of aerra-litha the Stour froze and the wolves took many early lambs; and men with fire and spears had to guard the cemetery lest the wolves attempt to dig up those newly buried. When my grandmother joined her husband in the earth, many long years later, her barrow was one of nearly twenty at the cemetery, for more long winters, pestilence and bad harvests had taken their toll on the elderly and the young. As a child the barrows at Thengelsham seemed to belong to some vastly remote age, the age of heroes, especially when shrouded in sea fog, when I would imagine I was on the banks of the Wistla (Vistula) at the graves of the heroes of the Goths slain by Aetla. But it was for me a place of fear, a place thick with spirits, and I stayed close to my father and mother at the annual aelfblot (elf-blood). My grandmother was buried in the summer of my fifth year, and the turf lifted easily, as I can attest for I watched the raising of her barrow and listened keenly to the dirge that accompanied her laying to earth, which told of her ancestors amongst the Frankish race, for she was a Merovingian of royal stock; the song told how the Romans in weakness had given the Franks rule in Gaul as the leaders of the Wealh had given us rule in Britain when the legions had gone for they needed our swords to repel the painted sea raiders from beyond the Wall.
My grandfather’s brother, Oisc, was king when my grandfather died, and it was he who led the sacrifices at the death feast. When Oisc died his son Eormanric, my father’s cousin, became king, and Eormanric led the sacrifices at my grandmother’s death feast. It was Eormanric who built the mead-hall at Cantwarebugh, and at this time my father left Thengelsham with its great barrows to rule as lord over my mother’s people in the valley of the Dour, by the old Roman port of Dubris, on whose slopes his barrow lies, and where I, too, will one day lie. Often the sea fog covers the valley of the Dour, but my father’s barrow sits high on the hillside, warmed by the sun, where one can hear the cuckoo in the woods in spring and watch the swallows gather at summer’s end.
It was from Eormanric, my father’s cousin, that I first learned the history of my people. He was named after the great king of the Goths, a name of honour among the Franks, though not used among us Jutes and in my child’s imagination the two men, Gothic and Kentish king, were one; and ever when I sing the lay of Eormanric the Goth it is my kinsman’s face he wears, with his corn-coloured receding hair and long moustaches.
I asked him once if he were a Goth and he replied that he was not, but that we and all the people who had taken this land after the Romans had left were of the coastal tribes, the Children of the divine Ing, the Son, hence we were known among all the Germanic folk as the Ingwine, friends of the Son. Ing was lord – his was the light and heat of the fiery chariot of the day pulled by the stallion of the heavens, his was the life in the growing wheat and barley, his the nurturing rain and the destroying frost – I was proud that we Jutes were his people – we who had once dwelt in the land across the water now ruled by the Danes, who had sought to crush us and drive us out by fire and sword, and whose had killed the priestesses of the Mother in her holy shrine in the name of Woden.
In the beginning of things, Eormanric taught me, there was nothing but a void, and on one side fire and the other ice, and where they met the ice melted and a giant named Twin came into being from the rime, whom the ancient songs named the Twisted One for in him were night and day, life and death, and all opposites entwined together as one so that there was neither night nor day, light nor dark, no man nor woman nor world as we know it. But Twin had a brother named Man, the ancestor of all us men, and Man slew his brother and from his body fashioned the three worlds – the upper-earth which is the heavens above our heads, the under-earth where the spirits of the dead dwell and the Middle-earth on which we living men spend our lives; the seas were his blood, the trees his hair, the rocks his bones. And as well as three worlds were formed three gods: Hermio, Ista and Ing, who were their father reborn within the new creation; fathers of peoples they were. Ing was the son, and lord, ever has he fed his people when yearly, like his father the creator, he dies and rises again as the new year’s barley and the renewed heat of the sun after midwinter. His animal is the horse which is why his priests are forbidden to ride these beasts, and why we Ingwine, whose banner is the white horse on a red field, never eat the flesh of horses, save at the horse sacrifice. But the Danes, he said, number Woden among the three sons of Twin. Woden was warrior and a seer, who had died, like Ing, and come back to life. We Jutes did not worship him, but we had kin amongst the Angle that did, and a temple to him had been built on a hill to the north of Eastorege for their use. To us followers of Ing Woden was but the Son by a new name – he was one-eyed, like Ing, whose eye is the sun; though unlike Ing who died each winter, he was said to have died but once, which to us made little sense.
The blood-month (November) of my twelfth year, I was taken to Ing’s temple by my father to be made a man. The temple was beside the great hall at Eastry, and though I had stood within the precincts of its wooden palisade at feasts and festivals I had never set foot inside the wooden sanctuary at its heart where the gods were housed.
The precincts were filled with the bones of cattle and smelled of blood and burning from the sacrifices, for at the start of winter the herds are thinned so the healthy beasts can survive the winter on what little fodder can be stored, and those that would else starve are slain to feed both gods and men during the coming dark times. I had fasted for three days and the smell of burned flesh made my mouth water and head swim, though I had been given a little mead to drink so I would not be sick. I was lead into the inner sanctum, no bigger than a small dwelling, by one of the long-robed priests with his shaved face and long womanly hair, trinkets and amulets clinking on the robe of his hem as he danced. I had brought an old, dried up milch cow from my father’s herds as my offering, and the priest took the rope from me and marked the cow’s forehead with caked blood from a large bronze bowl. Within the sanctuary stood the idols, and I shall describe them as now they are burned. They were made from two bent trunks, black with age, one shaped into the likeness of a bearded man, a garland of woven barley hung upon a branch that was his manhood – the other with round breasts and a cleft below its waist and a great golden ring about its neck. I knelt at the foot of the idols. I had seen Ing before, when in the spring he travelled about the farms in his ox drawn wagon, bedecked with flowers, surrounded by people drunk and singing – but to kneel before him here in his house was terrifying, his black eyes all seeing – and I had never seen his companion, Nertha, the lady, bride of sacred waters – for in the spring wedding her place in the ox cart was taken by a living priestess; why her idol was hidden – whether through sanctity or fear – I do not know. But these idols had been brought from the Old Country where the Mother’s worship had been persecuted.
I will not tell of the rites of manhood for they are secret but at their close the throat of the old beast was cut and the steaming blood gathered in the bowl. The priest took the switch of greenery from beside the prone beast and used it to scatter blood from the bowl upon me and the idols.
I left having pledged myself to the Lord and Lady of the fruitful earth, no longer a babe in arms but a young man. Now could bear a sword and ride a horse, though not within the god’s precinct. Happy, I was taken towards the hall by my father, to take my place among the cheering and singing crowd and to break my fast. I turned back once to look on the face of Ing and his bride but the door of the sanctuary had been closed again, save for the sun window above the lintel of the door. When he is born at midwinter the first rays of the rising sun shine through this window and upon his seat in the sanctuary – but not only this: at the same time, behind in the western sky, before they fade, the stars we call the Twin fall to earth and vanish below the hills, in memory of the sacrifice of the creator god Twin in the person of his son, who was buried beneath the earth, his mother, like the barley seed so that it might be reborn in the spring and feed mankind ever anew.
Once I was a man I left my mother’s house to be fostered at the court of Eormanric, sharing my time between the great hall at Eastorege beside the temple of Ing and the hall in Cantwareburgh, newly built within the great Roman walls, and where he presided over the nobles. When I was fourteen Eormanric grew sick in the spring and had taken to his bed before Eostremonath (April) and was not out of it much during the month of three-milkings (May) for his lungs were weak. There was much lament for he was a good king. The royal kindred gathered many times that month to talk of his successor, for his son Aethelberht was but eight years of age, being the child of his later years. Many nobles supported my father Eormenwulf for he was cousin to the king, but others of Frankish descent and persuasion argued that a Merovingian should be chosen to marry the queen, to cement alliances with the Continent. But before weed-month (August) had ended the king was regaining his strength though only by midwinter was he in full health.
In celebration of his recovery Eormanric declared the horse-sacrifice would take place as if he had been made newly king, for he had almost died and his bond with the land needed renewing – for the health of the king is bound to that of the fruitful earth, through his marriage with Nertha, who is eorddan-modor.
Though I thought myself a young man, and had been dressed by a servant girl in my best wool cloak and a Frankish brooch, I was angry to be set among the geogoth (untried youths) and children of the Royal kindred while the fully grown men danced the warrior’s spear dance, clad in their kilts and ritual headgear with its eagle-headed horns. The horses were brought down from the sacred precincts of the god; two stallions decked with winter flowers and evergreens and led by the dancing priests whose hair was as long and perfumed as the manes of the horses. Among the priests, with their flaming torches, was the priestess, bedecked with a wreath of flowers like the horse. Behind them came the blowing of horns as Earendel had risen and the people sang the ancient hymn:
‘Eala Earendel Tungol beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended’
‘Hail Earendel, brightest of stars
over Middle-Earth sent to men’
At my side stood young Aethelberht and his sister Ricole, both in richly ornamented brooches and purple robes lined with wolfskin. I was a full head and a half taller than this boy, and six years older, but he was my prince and kinsman and I soon forgot my shame of not dancing with the men. Aethelberht asked me where the horses had been for they had been absent from the holy field for some time.
‘The horses have been allowed to roam all the lands your father rules – for the land on which the god treads belongs to the god. Remember, last summer when there was a dispute between Aelfric and Eadwine over the ownership of farming land?’
Aethelberht nodded. ‘My father asked for their stallions to be let loose on the land, and Aelfric’s horse drove Eadwine’s away.’
‘Yes. So the god decided the matter. Today the horses have returned, for they have wandered over all lands belonging to your father.’
At the entrance to the temple a crowd had gathered so that it was difficult for us youths to see the ritual drama enacted by the priests in the cool dawn. Aethelberht pulled at my sleeve and asked me what they were doing.
Though I could not see well I answered as best I could from my knowledge of the old ways.
‘The priests of Ing with their womanly locks are playing out the death and rebirth of the Lord. The priestess is playing Our Lady Nertha, who we call Eo-wine, friend of Horses, and the Giver. They are lying together to make the earth fruitful. The people are singing the hymn of the fruitful earth. Now as he lies beneath her in the furrow, Ing is cut down with the sickle just as the crops are cut at the end of summer – and see how the dead god is placed on the bier and how the woman laments?’
‘But he will rise again?’ asked the young prince, frowning.
I had no need to answer for the crowd had parted and we could see how the priest had risen to his feet and danced among the people. Then the King dressed in a white horseskin cloak and hood, with a horse’s skull set above his own head, entered the precincts, sickle in hand.
‘Look how your father praises the horse, calling him noble and swift runner, light of the sun, bringer of barley and wheat. See how he honours him as Twin and Ing, how he names himself Hengist and the beast Horsa, and calls him brother, and Hearding.’
‘How is the horse both Ing, the son, and Twin?’ Aethelberht asked. He was at the age when a boy questions everything of the world around him.
‘Everything is Twin, the land we live on, the horse, even you and I are made from Twin – he is in all created things; and so the horse embodies Twin. How can anything me made anew, whether it be a farm, a hall, a kingdom or a period of rule unless it is re-created in the manner of the First Creation? The gods through their own actions show us men how we are to act. So the horse is Twin and in his death the world is made anew.’
The sickle flashed upon the horse’s throat like a lightning strike, and its white form buckled and lay upon the temple floor, whose grass was now bedewed with blood. Thus is the origin of the Oiscinga banner, the banner of the Kings of the Centware: a white horse upon a red field.
‘And Ing, my prince, is born from Twin and is Twin. The Son’s yearly death renews and repeats that of Twin at the start of time. Ing is the god of our people, and when we came to this land having left the Old Country we brought the worship of Ing with us, and he blessed our coming. Our first act was to release the sacred horses of the god and to claim the land of Thanet as our own. The twin horse was killed and laid in the ground, just like today.’
The body of the horse was being hacked into three pieces, its snow white skin now soiled and blemished.
‘The brother who kills twin is not evil, for he is the new year, the young sun who waxes in strength after the death of the old, the first green shoots of the barley in spring that arise from the mown-down sheaf: Ing takes on new life like a man might put on a new cloak, and yet to do so the old cloak must be cast aside. But the man in the cloak, the power of Ing, remains constant. The brother kills his brother and takes his wife to wed, but both are vessels of the god, both are one – do you see?’ Such mysteries are hard to put into words, which is why they move men most as song or play.
Aethelberht shook his head. ‘I do not see.’
I picked up a handful of earth and gave it to him. ‘Fashion a horse for me’. The prince did so and then I asked him to fashion a better one. He squeezed the crude horse into a ball and began again, this time with more concentration. When he had finished I held it before him.
‘Ing is not the horse – Thengel, Ing is the soil from which the horse takes form. For the second, better, horse to be made, what happened to the first?’
‘I had to unmake it.’ He said.
‘But is it gone, is it dead?’
‘Yes... but no. It is still there, but in a new shape.’
‘So it is with the brother who kills brother. There is no death, only a change of form: we give him a different name to show that he is newly formed. They are one – Hengist and Horsa, slayer and slain. And how can the barley sprout fresh from the soil if first the sheaf is not cut and buried?’
‘But Hengist and Horsa were men, were they not? And Horsa died in battle?’
This boy one day would be king; perhaps he needed the truth.
‘Those names you spoke are those by which the twin gods of beginnings are known to the people. The first king to claim this land did so as Hengist, the white stallion of the sun and sacrificer of Horsa; his actual name is now forgotten.’
‘Can a man be both man and god?’ he asked.
‘It is difficult to explain. Is not your own father Ing when he blesses the fields in Sol-Monath?’
Aethelberht nodded. ‘But he plays the god, like I might play Badon Hill with the other boys, with my wooden sword.’ He said.
‘Is the barley that dies and falls to ground only to spring forth again in the spring playing? Does the sun play at growing weak in winter, or the moon play at waxing and waning? Does Earendel, the morning star, play at leading Ing’s chariot from the underworld, or play at following him thither at the day’s end? No. The king does not play at Ing, for surely as we are all the stuff of Twin, we are all of Ing and the very cycle of life is Ing in which we dance. Your father does not play the god: you might say that he stops playing Eormanric, and reveals his true nature, one that we all share. That is the mystery. For we are all part of the god, but no one man is god. That would be too much for any one man to bear.’
Aethelberht looked up at me and touched my arm.
‘When I am king you will be my advisor, for you are wise as a priest, and I do not trust priests. Swear to me you will.’ So I swore, kneeling on the muddy ground where the horse of clay lay broken on the earth like the slain beast within the sanctuary, the flesh of which we would eat at the feast that night. It was to be the last horse-feast to be celebrated by our people.
When I was seventeen the men of Kent rode to war. Eormanric, then 62 winters of age, summoned the Eoh (cavalry) to Eastorege when the harvest was in and we rode the Old Roman road to London that men call Wada-inga Strete, for it is long and straight as the starry road the giant sons of Wade forged across the heavens.
I rode beside my father listening to the older men laugh and tell tales of past skirmishes and of the deeds of their ancestors. Eormanric said little, remarking on the good harvest and his relief that the winter would not be lean. His great moustaches were all grey now, and I stroked my own downy beard, willing it to grow.
I cannot remember if I felt any fear. I was young and my spear was bright and untested. And we rode, so the men said, to an easy victory. Like as not blood would not be shed; we went to prevent war, not to wage it.
We journeyed to defend Aescwine, King of the East Saxons, our ally to the north, whose kingdom had become divided. A faction had arisen friendly to the young Gewissan leader Ceawlin, most westerly of the Saxon leaders, whose expansions into his neighbour’s territories had become more violent and greedy. Ceawlin had long defended his western borders against the wealh of Dumnonia, but his ambitions did not halt with the wealh and tensions had arisen on both the border with the South Saxons to his east and those East Saxons under Aescwine in the valley of the Thames and London. The East Saxons had long been kin through dynastic marriage with the Oiscingas, as Aescwine’s very name revealed, for it meant Oisc-friend – but Ceawlin had cast a greedy eye on Aescwine’s lands and the rich trade that he commanded from his capital at London to the mouth of the Rhine and beyond. Many of the East Saxons, especially the farmers of the western Thames and the younger warriors who like Ceawlin had turned to the worship of Woden, argued that they should take Ceawlin as their overlord, rather than Eormanric whom they saw as pawn of the Franks. But much of this talk was spoken in fear of a restless and warlike neighbour.
Aescwine, like Eormanric, was an ageing King, with an unmarried fully grown son named Sledda. Sledda had the support of his father’s nobles and had long wished to cast the Ceawlin faction out of the court of the East Saxons, but he feared a reprisal from Ceawlin.
Then, in the spring, Ceawlin had begun to prepare for war with the wealh to his west, and by fore-litha his armies had gathered and marched to battle. Many of Ceawlin’s supporters amongst the East Saxons rode to war with him, but a number had remained seemingly under the leadership of an earl named Edgar. Sledda immediately sent envoys to Eormanric asking for Oiscinga support in the expulsion of Edgar and his men. Ceawlin would be less likely to seek reprisals for the expulsion, especially after a summer of war, if it might provoke war with Kent. Then news came that there had been a great victory in the west. Ceawlin has defeated the armies of the wealh at Dyrrham and had taken Bath and Cirencester; and that Sledda had fled to East Anglia with his brother following an attempt on his life. Ceawlin’s army were still at war – and posed little threat to us; more importantly this left Edgar and his retinue unsupported. And so we rode to London to defend our friend Aescwine.
That first night we stopped at the royal vill at Feversham by the roadside. The horses were tethered in the yard and at the centre of the hall, though it was summer, the long fire pit was lit. Our weapons were stacked against the wall and we drank ale; I was a man on the eve of his first battle. Glory awaited me, the chance to put my name in song.
Eormanric was speaking. ‘Like as not the rebel earls will try to force Aescwine to put one of Ceawlin’s bastards on the throne now that Sledda has fled; they will be expecting him to return from the north with help from the Wuffingas. But our road will be watched, too; they surely cannot think we will sit idle and watch while London is taken, but they may believe that like them all men are cowards and scared of Ceawlin. They expect us to hesitate, not thinking we may be on the road already. If the mustering has been seen by spies then they will believe, rightly, that the Eoh- will reach the Thames by tomorrow eve.’
I was called over.
‘I have an important errand for you, Aethelwulf. You will journey to the isle of the Hart. Take your harp, and if you are stopped on the road you will say you are a Frankish harper. I fear spies abroad this night. Take this ring as a sign that you journey under my protection: it will be recognised by for whom it is intended, and to whom with my blessing it will be returned. Only when he demands it should you reveal your identity and your purpose. Go now.’
‘Is there no message, Theoden?’ I asked.
‘The ring is the message.’
I nodded my consent, though I was confused at the order. The king saw my hesitation, but said nothing, waving me away.
I know now that it was my slight build and dark colouring that in part singled me out for this mission, and my skill at a harp and my knowledge of the Frankish speech gave credence to the lie I may have had to give.
The stable-lad saddled my horse and I rode out of the palisade feeling suddenly naked without my shield and spear. It was a warm night and the stars were clear above the low-lying mist. My horse’s hooves struck sparks from the cobbled road, and I could smell the sea close at hand.
When I reached the creek at Fabersham a few minutes later the moon had risen above the mists and the creaking of the boats in the harbour a welcome sound. Here were a couple of Frankish merchant’s vessels that were to sail through the Wantsum and across to the mouth of the Rhine on the following morn and three light warships. A smaller vessel lay moored nearby, beside the ferryman’s lodgings. The hearthlight could be seen through the door, and the man was awake, but drunk.
The sea was calm, the rolling of the boat comforting. The ferryman talked in his ale, of the place. We kept close to the shore, passing on the headland a great boat-shaped hillock where he said some great warrior from the past had been laid within his boat. Soon we were upon the open water, and approaching the isle, passing through reed beds and marsh. The ferryman was uneasy and kept clutching an amulet around his neck for protection.
‘What do you fear?’ I asked him.
‘Spirits of the marsh. Things of shadow in the shape of man that walk this mire at night bringing death and pestilence. The isle of the Hart is a dreadful place.’
Finally through the mist we could make out the hulls of moored ships and the ferryman pulled the boat ashore. I told him not to wait but he said he daren’t travel back alone.
The royal vill of Heort (Hart) was on a rise above the harbour at the end of a Roman road; it was a great wooden hall, like that at Eastorege, but had been built upon an old Roman hall, with an intricate patterned floor of coloured stones, some fashioned in the shape of a white hart, for which the hall and isle had been named. The watchman had seen our boat arrive and he demanded my name and the reason for my arrival. For a moment I did not know what to say, who to trust. What if Ceawlin’s men had got here before me? I told him I was a harper.
I entered the long hall where a small number of men sat around the hearth, their weapons and shields hung on the walls behind them; a couple of serving women were bringing them platters of steaming meat; at the high end of the hearth sat a grey bearded man in a dark cloak, rich with brooches; at his side a dark haired lady. And close by a pale haired man with a thick moustaches, his brooches arrayed in the Continental fashion, and beside him a man of similar colouring, but stockier, and his hair pulled back into a ponytail revealing a sunburned forehead. There was a cold atmosphere in the place; as if some evil were abroad. To whom had I come? Should I just reveal the ring and be done?
‘You are a long way from home, harper’ said the greybeard.
‘I seek meat and drink in return for a song’ I said.
And so I sung a lay that I had heard once at Eastorege from a northern Kentish bard. It began with the creation, of how Twin had been cast into the earth at the start of time, murdered by his brother. But it went on to tell the well known legend of how Hengest with his brother Horsa had swum across the Swale to the Isle of the Hart, thus consecrating the land for the Jutes. But here the tale departed from the rites of Ing, as oft happens with song – for Hengist’s actions were rendered human.
The song told how the murder of Twin was seen as a crime, and that Hengist’s swim across the Swale was to seek forgiveness from the gods for this murder. On the shore he met the bride of the waters, the goddess Skuld, and how she had prophesied that one day he would be slain by his brother; to prevent this Hengest slew his brother there and then on the sand, thus was the horse sacrifice rendered in this song. Hengest took the bride to wed, but years later upon the beach, mocking the goddesses prophecy he kicked the skull of Horsa that lay half-buried, and a serpent shot out of the eye-hole and bit Hengest and so he died – buried under a barrow opposite Hart.
This is the cycle of Ing, for so shall the new sun be eclipsed in its on time by a newer sun, and the young barley be cut down at harvest to make way for the new – and it is said that ever in the Old Country when a king grew old, he would be slain by his successor, who in turn would be slain by his: and each was the husband of the goddess, and so each man was brother to the man who slew him and to him who he slew.
As I sung only the lady seemed enthralled. The grey beard sat with eyes downcast and the pale man stared forward, not at the fire, but at his sunburned companion, who shifted on his settle, coughing, twisting his beard with his fingers, and calling for more ale.
‘That is a strange song for a Frank to sing’ said the lady when I had finished, by her looks and own tongue she was a woman of wealh stock. The greybeard unclasped a square-headed brooch from his shoulder and held it out to me.
‘Your song has brightened this hall. Will you drink with us?’ He said.
I walked towards them and bowed and reached out my hand to accept the brooch so that the ring was in plain sight.
‘A bright song? Nay. ‘Tis an evil day when kin slays kin’ said the pale man, eyeing the ring on my hand, and then the fidgeting man, who had grown even redder faced. He stood and walked about the hearth.
‘Say ye not, Seaxmund, brother?’ he continued, looking towards the man Seaxmund turned slowly from the fire.
‘What mean you by this, kinsman?’ he said, wiping ale foam from his moustache and beginning to rise; but he was tardy. His brother had reached the wall where the weapons lay and had cast a spear over the fire through the other man’s chest, then rushing forward he leaped the flames and drove down his sword to smite the wounded man’s head. Seaxmund, spitting blood, yet managing to stand, lifted his arm to ward off the blow. His arm was severed and he fell to the floor. There was clamouring and chaos as men jumped up and seized their weapons – but in seconds Seaxmund lay dead on the ground, and the greybeard called to his thegns to disarm.
To this day I know not why I chose to sing the song of the brotherslayer at the Hall of the Hart; perhaps only to appease the lord because of its mention of the hall in its lines. But often the poet and singer is inspired by something above him to speak a truth and unearth wrongdoing among those present, when he is but the mouthpiece of the Prince of all Storytellers.
The pale man wiped the blood from his sword on his tunic and approached me. He asked for his ring, which I gave him, and for my name.
‘I am Aethelwulf, son of Eormenwulf that is cousin to King Eormanric. My lord gave me this ring and bade me come hither this night and seek its owner.’
‘I am Sledda of the East Saxons. This is my father’s ring. It was given to him by King Oisc many years ago, before I was born, as a symbol for the link between our houses and in memory that the kingship of our people was a gift from the Kings of Kent. My father is dead, slain by my enemies ere I fled – now the ring comes to back to me from the hands of the King of the Oiscingas; and the East Saxons have a king once more.’
I knelt before him.
‘We thought you had fled east to Wuffa, Dryhten.’ I said.
‘Yes, I sailed north east to make it appear so, then south. But I sent word to your Lord that I had secreted myself here in Aeschere’s hall, and that if he would help me that he should return my ring, yet discreetly, for I feared a traitor in our midst...or that I had at least been followed. It was not until you sang of the brother-slaying that I guessed who the traitor was. Seaxmund would have slain me this night, of that I am sure, had not your tale revealed the truth. He would have returned with a tale of how I had been slain by another, and he would have wed one of Ceawlin’s whores and taken the Kingship. Earl Edgar was but a pawn in all of this. I owe you my life Oiscinga. Tell me, when does Eormanric ride from Eastorege?’
‘My lord, we rode at cock-crow. Even now the King and his men feast at Faversham.’
He clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Then let us depart for in the morning we ride to London!’
That night when I slept beside the hearth amongst the Eoh- I dreamed a strange dream, of a dark monster from the mire, with the face of Seaxmund, seeking to destroy the Hall of the Hart, creeping over the patterned-floor, this creature of shadow; and in the dream there was an exiled prince with flaxen hair and his retinue of warriors, who defended the hall from evil, who slew the monster and hung its arm from the rafters - and who returned home a king but was slain by a serpent and was buried in a boat-shaped barrow overlooking the sea. And in time I was to weave a song from this dream, that I sang in many a hall and to many princes.
King Sledda was claimed King within the Royal hall of the East Saxons on the banks of the Thames on the morning after he buried his father. The Ceawlin faction had been quick rather than strong, and when the Eoh- reached the old city walls the rebel earls fled. Edgar’s fleeing warband were soon caught by Eormanric’s warriors. The result was quick and bloody.
We remained with Sledda for ten days, during which time he and the Lady Ricula, Eormanric’s daughter, who arrived by sea with her brother Aethelberht, now eleven winters old, were wed. When we returned to Kent I noticed a change in the King; perhaps Aescwine’s death and the chaos caused by his son’s unmarried status had given him concern for his own kingdom’s future.
‘Had Sledda already been allied to Kent through marriage then perhaps the revolt would not even have been considered.’ He said to me as the summer drew to a close. ‘I need to think ahead. When I am dead I do not wish the Kingdom to fall into chaos. Our strength has always been our alliance with Frankia. When the Merovingians were strong I feared a direct alliance through marriage – I had no desire to become the underling of a foreign king. But times have changed: their land becomes divided between squabbling sons who remain strong but not so strong as to eye our land with desire – none dares extend himself beyond his own land for fear that some brother will take advantage while his back is turned. The reason I am telling you this, Aethelwulf, is that I have a task for you. You prove your ability to act as my representative when you went to the isle of the Hart. Now I ask you to go Frankia and find my son a Merovingian bride.’
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