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NOTE: THIS STORY IS BASED ON REAL HISTORICAL EVENTS. ANGLO-SAXON NAMES CAN BE CONFUSING TO THOSE UNFAMILIAR WITH THEM, SO FOR REFERENCE A ‘DRAMATIS PERSONAE’ HAS BEEN APPENDED.
“And I grant to Bishop Æthelwold the estate at [unidentified] and pray him that he will always intercede for my mother and for me.” Will of Ælfgifu.
Risborough, October 959
Æthelgifu stared at the raftered ceiling, unable to return to sleep; in her mind she turned over all that had passed since the fateful day of Edwig’s coronation. Three and a half years, was that all it had been – to gain and lose so much? Many was the night she had woken early to lie awake in the long hours before the dawn, brooding upon what the weft and warp of fate yet held for her and for her children: one daughter abandoned, the other yet to be betrothed, her sons bound by oaths of loyalty to a falling star. But this morning her heart strained under a heightened foreboding, a premonition of a doom waiting to fall upon them all.
Ælfgifu, the elder of her daughters, lay snuggled against her mother, the touch of her warm flesh cloying and prickly beneath the covers, stray strands of auburn hair tickling the matron’s cheek. Careful not to disturb the slumbering girl, Æthelgifu extricated herself, gently letting the younger woman’s head drop against the sloping headboard. In the chink of light breaking through the thick embroidered bed hangings she watched her daughter’s pert full breasts rise and fall with the rhythm of her breath. Tenderly she traced a finger round the aureole of the closest nipple, pink against the pale freckled flesh, raising the small bud. Ælfgifu moaned softly in her sleep, responding to the familiar touch.
Æthelgifu had done all a mother could to comfort the girl, distracting her with occupations suitable for a young lady of rank: engaging her in games such as nine men’s morris and fox and geese, or in the embroidering of vestments for the church; while scops had been brought in to fill the lengthening evenings with ancient sagas and ingenious riddles. With maternal care she had soothed her daughter’s troubled mind with readings from the Gospels, and satisfied the burning desires of her daughter’s flesh with lips and tongue and fingers that penetrated and probed in all the her secret places, using the nubile body in the ways it craved to be used; slaking her own ravening lust on her daughter’s need.
It was not enough. The touch for which Ælfgifu pined was that of her husband, the touch she would never be allowed to feel again, his cock never more to slide between the gratefully parted thighs and fill the welcoming cunt, where, by nature’s law, if not God’s, it belonged. And Æthelgifu? Well, if she did not hear from that bastard dishthegn soon she was going to hump a stablelad; or possibly one of his charges.
Letting her daughter sleep on, Æthelgifu parted the hangings and slid down off of the big wooden bed. Privacy was the preserve of privilege, the church frowned upon the opportunities it provided for the indulgence of sinful appetites. Æthelgifu, whose appetites were more powerful than most, had her bed behind a partition of stout Baltic planking. Answering a knock upon the door she undid the mortice lock, to let in a bleary eyed slavegirl bearing a ewer of steaming water. By the dim morning light filtering through the oiled vellum window, she washed her face and private parts, and, having towelled herself dry, dressed, selecting from an iron-banded chest a long blue linen tunic with tightly fitting sleeves. Over this went a broad sleeved scarlet gown in soft wool, embroidered upon the neckline and cuffs, and onto her feet she slipped shoes edged with red leather. Taking up the collection of tiny tools that hung from a ring at her belt, she plucked her eyebrows and nostril hairs, then scooped the wax out of her ears with a tiny spoon, before applying a little colour with a brush. Finally she donned a lace adorned wimple, straightening it in the lead-backed mirror so that the carefully crimped light brown curls artfully peaked out onto the forehead and temple.
She paused to admire herself. The broad brow was marred by a brace of narrow lines, and perpendicular to these, stern furrows had formed above the bridge of the chiselled nose, and, yes, the skin hung a little loosely from the high cheekbones, but the beauty that had caused Edric, ealdorman of Hampshire, to choose her yet remained. The once luscious mouth had grown thinner-lipped and downcurled at the corners, but she had kept the full set of even teeth, all tolerably white. The eyes had grown a little heavy lidded, but pearl grey irises continued to gleam brightly under curling lashes. The swanlike neck creased now when it turned, and creases too testified to the weight of the yet full but increasingly veined and pendulous breasts; a belly had gathered above the tapering waist and there was more meat upon the hips that had borne Edric four children. But for all the trials inflicted upon her, all the insults she had had to endure, and all the slanders, illegal bahis she still carried herself like the great lady she was, the granddaughter of an atheling, the widow of an ealdorman, the mother of a queen.
Wrapping herself in a marten-trimmed mantle, held together with the garnet broach Ælfheah had gifted her, she passed through the bower, where the palliases of her household retainers had been rolled away and the ashes of the fire in the central hearth were being raked; then stepped out into the passage that separated the bower from the great hall. The bond servants, who had slept on the benches that lined the walls of the hall, were already up and about their business in brewhouse or dairy, granary or buttery, the wholesome scent of bannocks baking on the griddle wafting from the kitchen.
Æthelgifu walked across the enclosure to the bellhouse and began to climb. From the top of the tower she could look down upon the roofs of the vill clustered around the ditched and pallisaded burh, the solid homes of churls and the humbler cottages of labourers, the manorial chapel and the mill. Her eyes swept further abroad across the stubbled fields and mown meadows, at first tracing the long western boundary of the strip of land that formed her estate, from the gore to the blackthorn hedge and along the foul brook up past the great ash and down the old dyke west of the herdsman’s shacks; then looking north to the neighbouring manors of Waldridge and Kimble and beyond to the valley of the Wye, before turning her gaze east to the Icknield Way under the wooded slopes of the Chilterns, where the chalk scar of Whiteleaf caught a glimmer of morning sun; at the old heathen burial mound the ancient trackway met the King’s Street which ran on up past Wayland’s stump to thread through the gap in the hills. Two horsemen were galloping headlong down the road; though little more than distant specks as yet, Æthelgifu recognised them with a mother’s eye.
Returning to the bower she was greeted by her younger daughter, Ælfwaru, her hair yet uncovered but the budding breasts obvious beneath the linen shift. Perhaps I should put her in Edgar’s bed, she thought, as I did Ælfgifu in his brother’s. But what was the point? The horny little toad had already bedded half the thegn’s daughters in Mercia and, perhaps with more pleasure, their maidservants too. It was doubtful if there was anything even Æthelgifu could teach him.
“What did you see, mother?” the child asked, surprised to find her coming down from the bellhouse.
“Your brothers are here,” Æthelgifu answered. Ælfwaru’s exclamation of excitement died upon her lips as she took in the hard line of her mother’s mouth. “You had best tell your sister.”
The brothers rode under the great burh gate and swung down off of their shaggy ponies, throwing the reins to a groom. The younger boy, Ælfward, embraced his mother; Æthelgifu ran her finger through his copper hair as she looked questioningly to his brother. Æthelward’s gangling frame had begun to fill out; last year he had taken a wife and he was become one the great men of the household, a royal dishthegn, like Ælfheah. Where, wondered Æthelgifu, was Ælfheah? Why did he not come?
Æthelward’s gaze reluctantly turned from his mother to Ælfgifu his sister, as he cleared his throat to announce, “Edwig the All-fair is dead.”
All colour drained from Ælfgifu’s cheeks. Of course she had understood that she had lost him, that there was no way he would be allowed to take her back, but Æthelgifu knew a part of her had still hoped. Ælfgifu shook her head, “He can’t be.”
Of course he is, thought Æthelgifu. How, when they have taken so much else from him, the half of his kingdom, the wife he loved, would they let him keep his life?
Kingston, March 956
King Edred Weak-in-the-Feet had been dying all his life, but three months previously, in his manor of Frome at the age of thirty-two, the sickly genes that the great Ælfred had passed on to his descendants had finally sent him to his rest. He had not failed in his duty. The work begun by his grandfather Ælfred, and continued by his father and aunt, his half-brother and brother, had been completed; the Viking threat had been tamed and all the former petty kingdoms of the English brought under the West Saxon heel.
The line Ælfred had drawn at the Watling Street, annexing to his own realm the heartland of the old Mercian kingdom, had been pushed back, and one by one the leaders of the Danelaw had fallen: the kings of East Anglia; the jarls of nine boroughs; the hold of Amounderness (cutting off the kings of York from their allies in Dublin); and York, well York had proved a more intractable problem. But after many a surrender followed by many a revolt, Edred had had the scheming Archbishop Wulfstan brought south in chains; and their King, Eric Bloodaxe, for a second time cast out of his city, had been slain in a trap laid by Oswulf, High Reeve of the English enclave of Bamburgh. Oswulf now held Northumbria, the land his ancestors had ruled as kings, illegal bahis siteleri as the ealdorman of a king who had his capital in Winchester.
A new concept was being born, England. But it was fragile. Edred had left in his will a warchest lest the Danes should rise again, and there remained a faultline in the kingdom, between Wessex and its dependencies south of the Thames, and the lands of the old Mercian hegemony to the north.
Edred’s bony backside had kept the throne warm for the sons of his brother Edmund: the aethelings Edwig and Edgar, the last heirs of Alfred’s male line. When Edmund the Magnificent had bled out on the floor of the feast hall at Pucklechurch, the knife of the outlaw in his chest, the boys had been too young to succeed, so the Witan had elected Edred. There was nothing remarkable in this; among the English kings were chosen from those of the blood who were most throneworthy. Ælfred himself had assumed the crown after his brother, the sainted Æthelred, had succumbed to the wounds he had suffered on the battlefield of Merton; it had been inconceivable that Æthelred’s infant sons should lead the West Saxons in their darkest hour against the Danish onslaught. Nonetheless the sainted king’s heirs lived on: Æthelgifu was herself his great-granddaughter.
An arrangement that was practical in the heat of war could, however, be destabilising in times of peace. When Edward the Elder, the warrior son of Ælfred, had assumed the kingship, one of Æthelred’s sons had staked his own claim, abducting Ælfred’s daughter from the convent where she was abbess to be his bride; failing to rally the English he had then thrown in his lot with the Viking foe.
Edward had countered by putting aside the mother of his eldest son and taking to wife the rebel’s niece. Upon Edward’s death the choice of the West Saxon Witan had fallen on their son Ælfward; but they had reckoned without the people of Mercia, who proclaimed a king of their own, Æthelstan, the son of the woman Edward had discarded.. Ælfward’s support crumbled, and sixteen days after the death of his father he had succumbed to one of those mysterious ends that befall unsuccessful claimants to the throne.
With bad grace the West Saxon Witan had accepted Æthelstan’s claim to the kingdom, to the chagrin of Æthelred’s clan. Æthelgifu’s father had hatched a conspiracy to abduct and blind the king, replacing him upon the throne with the younger brother of the ill-fated Ælfward. It was not to be: the plot was foiled and the fleeing boy drowned in a storm at sea. Æthelgifu’s father had died an exile in Rome, his lands forfeit.
Secure upon his throne, Æthelstan cowed the Danes of York and the Welsh princes, before bloodily defeating the Dublin Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons at the Battle of Brunanburh. For the first time there was a king of all England, and what was more, a lord over the whole of the island of Britain. With Æthelstan in the Brunanburh had been his eighteen year old half-brother Edmund, the son of yet another of his father’s marriages, to the formidable lady Edgifu. To secure the succession, the ascetic young king had adopted Edmund as his heir.
Edmund had peacefully succeeded Æthelstan, as Edred had Edmund, and once again there was to be no succession crisis: Edmund’s elder son Edwig, whom Edred had raised at his court, had this day stood upon the scaffold in the market square to accept the acclaim of the people, his long blonde hair glistening yet more brightly than the golden regalia in the spring sunshine.
Kingston has been the place of coronation for the West Saxon kings for generations. Having shaken off the Mercian yoke, Edwig’s forefather Ecgbert, had accepted the surrender of the other southern kingdoms on this spot, the first step on the path to the unification of England by his heirs. The town was a liminal a place: here the tide reached its furthest point and turned, and here was the highest place that the Thames could be forded, bringing together peoples of south and north. And here, in the famous minster on the gravel island formed by the meeting of the Thames and its tributary the Hogsmill, Edwig had ceased to be simply a man and had become God’s anointed: Odo the Severe, Canterbury’s archbishop had slid the ring onto his finger, fastened the sword to his belt , placed the sceptre in his hand, and upon his head he had lowered the crown Æthelstan had had made to replace the warhelm of his ancestors.
Tonight at the great feast Edwig would show his worthiness to be the people’s lord, the breadgiver, showering his largesse upon the great and the good, the ealdormen and king’s thegns, bishops and abbots. In the the burh of the royal manor the household officials were bustling back and forth, ensuring all ran smoothly, the dishthegns, who saw to the King’s vittles, the byrles who served him his drink, and the bowerthegns who put him to bed; three men to each office who would each spend four months at court.
For Æthelgifu, a comely widow with a daughter of ripe age and two fine sons canlı bahis siteleri with careers to build, no finer opportunity could present itself than the accession of a virile young ruler. But how to find time alone with him?
The young King was talking to, or perhaps more accurately, being talked at, by his grandmother, Queen Edgifu, in her fifties now, but slim and straight, her manner as imperious as ever; at her shoulder stood the burly tonsured figure of Abbot Dunstan of Glastonbury, glowering grimly at his squirming royal master.
While her brothers mingled with the young cnihts of the King’s household, thegn’s son’s like themselves looking for advancement, Ælfgifu clung wide-eyed to her mother’s side as Æthelgifu pointed out who was whom among the great ones of the court. The tall beautiful woman with her hand on the arm of the jovial man with the bushy red beard, that was the King’s stepmother, Queen Æthelflaed with her second husband Æthelstan the Red; the woman who closely resembled her was her sister, and the hulking figure towering over everyone, the sister’s husband, the East Saxon thegn Byrhtnoth, a mighty spear-wielder in the shieldwall. A scarred, hatchet faced man had been identified as the ealdorman Oswulf, lured down from his eyrie in Bamburgh for the coronation, while the wiry, white haired figure buttonholing him was the disgraced archbishop Wulfstan, now installed in the see of far off Dorchester, where he could stir no further trouble in the north.
Æthelgifu was wondering whether to rescue the Northumbrian ealdorman, or perhaps ingratiate herself with the younger of the dowager queens, when she was hailed by a robust, white-bearded man, his greying locks balding on the crown. She dropped a curtsey, Ælfgifu anxiously imitating her, as, retinue in tow, the tall figure of ealdorman Æthelstan of East Anglia strode across to greet her. His royal namesake had made him his lieutenant in the former Danelaw south of the Humber, an office he had held for a quarter of a century. Men called him the Half-King, and his family had become the most powerful in the land.
It was the Half-King’s late brother, ealdorman Edric of Hampshire, who had rescued the young Æthelgifu from the nunnery in which she had been ensconced after her father’s flight. The saddlesore thegn had demanded lodging for the night, and Æthelgifu had been instructed to bathe his feet in welcome. She had rubbed his soles tenderly, teasing apart the toes, all the while shyly glancing up at him, flashing him her smile. Seeing his cock strain against his breeches, she had coyly remarked that he must be sweat-soaked from the ride. Would he like her to also wash his legs? Without waiting for a reply she had loosened the belt that held up his woollen trousers, and begun to sponge his calves and thighs, slowly and methodically, leaning in so that he might feel her warm breath against his skin. Then reaching under his tunic she had pulled away his breechcloth, freeing the rigidly erect penis. Taking a firm hold of his shaft, she had lifted it to one side, then begun dabbing at his ballsack with the damp cloth, ducking her head between his thighs the better to see what she was doing. Satisfied, she had turned her attention to his cock, holding the helmet delicately between two fingers, as she polished the stiff shaft with her cloth, her hand running up and down the length. Pulling the foreskin tight, she leant in close to spit upon the tip, before rubbing it attentively with the cloth.
“There, my lord,” she had smiled up. “All clean.”
Reaching down, Edric had taken hold of the chin of the wimpled novice, and guided it gently but firmly toward his manly spear. Unprotestingly Æthelgifu had gathered the engorged member into her virgin mouth, her big eyes all the while holding his as she gazed up in adoring innocence.
She had barely begun when Edric came with a shuddering urgency, clenching her head between his thighs so as to cause her to as gag on the hard cock even as she struggled to swallow down the sticky cum. Clinging to him doggedly as he loosed his grip, she dug her nails into his buttocks, determined not to let go until she had drained him of every lingering drop of semen. Then smiling angelically she had asked whether he had more of this delicious nectar.
He had left in the morning with Æthelgifu as his bride on the saddlebow of his horse. She smiled at the memory; how easily a woman who knew the power of her body might guile mighty men.
Ealdorman Æthelstan introduced a small, stocky boy as his foster-son, the younger aetheling, Edgar. His head barely level with Æthelgifu’s matronly breasts, he leered at them openly. It was true then that the boy was a graceless ill-formed runt. Hopefully his handsome brother would marry soon and have issue to secure the succession. She glanced across at Ælfgifu, now blushing crimson as the aetheling’s salivating gaze switched to the daughter. And why not Ælfgifu? With her high pedigree and careful education, her pale skin and high cheeked beauty, her succulent breasts and child-bearing hips, she would make a perfect wife for the young King. Was it too much to dream that her daughter might grace the royal bed? That one day she might be the grandmother of a king and see Æthelred’s line restored to the throne?
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