Part 1: Streona
“[Eadric] was a man of humble birth, but his tongue procured him both riches and high station; he was of a ready wit, of persuasive eloquence, and surpassed all his contemporaries in malice, perfidy, pride, and cruelty.”
-“The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester” Entry Year 1007 A.D.
Winter, 1002 A.D.
Eadric refused to let the leak in his wine cask ruin his fine evening. The young servant still needed to ride a mile from the bustling city of Lundenburg back to Lord Bram’s manor, and without a doubt the cask would be very light by the journey’s end. Lord Wulfric and his men had already been intoxicated when they sent him to fetch more, so perhaps they would not notice. He now had a rare opportunity to roam the thriving streets of Engla-lond’s greatest city without the supervision of a thegn or lord, and he was determined to make the most of it.
The sun had not yet fallen below the River Thames, so it bathed the old Roman city in glowing hues of gold. The great stone walls around the burg gleamed like heavenly armor. The River Thames sparkled beneath the Lunden bridge as a breeze raked the surface. The shapes of traders and ships in the port flitted across the light as dancing silhouettes. Even the filthiest of street corners, filled with tethered animals or begging whores, appeared bright and beautiful.
The firm structure protecting the city, however, was only so beautiful as the chaos within it. The roads and riverside teemed with the busy lords and churls of the city. Exotic and free-spirited people from across the sea shouted from booths and wagons. The Anglo-Saxon residents offered tallow, wool, and pig meat in order to obtain gloves, vinegar, wine, pepper, fowl, and other precious goods from the foreigners. At least a dozen pungent smells competed in the smoky air at any given moment: baskets of bread and clumps of manure, perfumes of the rich and the sweat of the poor, flowers in the marketplace and latrines in the alleys.
At a glance, one would never guess that only eight years ago, the Viking king of Denmark–Sweyn Forkbeard–nearly burned this city to the ground.
The diverse people of Lundenburg possessed a spirit that seemed untainted by the warfare in their past. The Saxons wore their short tunics and bushy beards; the Danes sported their goat-skinned coats and their sea-swept hair; the Normans flourished their long flowing mantles and clean-shaven chins. The king’s own hearth companions strolled from the direction of the palace, gleaming with chainmail and helms. But best of all were the women. Some of them hid beneath veils or wimples, but some dared the winter cold with light and fluid under-gowns, tied about their arms or waists to show the shapes of their bodies. Eadric had rarely seen women dress so boldly in public. The wenches were unashamed to look at him and smile, blushes splashing their cheeks though their eyes gleamed with knowing.
Despite all of Eadric’s gawking and marveling, he might still have saved himself a thrashing and returned to his lord with a decent amount of wine if he had not come across a young man crying.
The man was almost a boy, some thirteen years of age, but he seemed to Eadric like a lucky lad who had nothing to cry about. He wore fine red linens and a long black cloak to protect him from the grip of winter air. A sparkling brooch fastened his cloak to his shoulders and embroidery weighed down his cuffs. Perhaps due to the tears running down his face, his skin was clean and free of mud; but even his boots looked like they had never seen a hard day’s work.
“What’s this?” called Eadric. “What ails you, my friend?”
The boy looked up, his dark brown graze fragmented with tears, his black hair standing up where he had pulled upon it. Eadric wondered how he must look to the other fellow. A poor churl, dressed in scratchy wools and loose-fitting trousers, he nonetheless prided himself on his appearance. Eadric’s hair was a thick mass of golden curls that his lord let him grow long so it would not form a ridiculous halo about his face. His eyes, large and blue, tended to glitter with good humor no matter his circumstance.
“Who are you?” The boy spoke with a wary tone.
“Eadric of Staffordshire. Now tell me who has wronged you. A lord? A churchman? Or perhaps a woman? I can help you with any of the above – especially the last.”
The youth frowned, unable to place Eadric’s name, but deciding
it did not matter. “Can you help me with a father?”
“I know little of fathers,” Eadric confessed. “But what has he done to you?”
“He has done nothing to me.” The boy wiped his leaking nose. “But everyone else complains of him. They call him foolish and incompetent.” He fixed Eadric with a cruel glare. “I bet you don’t even know what that word means.”
“It means he cannot do his job.” Unlike most boys, Eadric had been tutored. He even knew how to read. “If you ask me,” said Eadric, “a job is a job. What matters is whether he can protect himself, and his family. A job is only a means to an end. Do you follow?”
The youth scrunched up his face as he tried to understand. “I … I think so.”
Clearly he did not, but Eadric smiled. “Cheer up, my friend. The purpose of a job is to buy bread and live a comfortable life. Therefore its purpose is to be happy, and so it must be useless, if it makes no one happy.” The boy still seemed confused, so Eadric contrived another way to explain it. “Consider the king. He is a king! And yet do you hear how people ridicule him?”
The youth blinked his big, curious eyes.
“When the king asks people to pay money to the Vikings, and thus delay the next attack, everyone shouts and complains. But the king is only doing what he must: protecting himself and his own. In any case, he wants his people to be happy, and if they stopped complaining, perhaps they would be.”
“They say he should fight more.” The boy sniffled. “But he won’t.”
Eadric was a bit surprised by this pointed response, but tried to keep up. “And do you blame him? Why, if I was the king, I wouldn’t fight much at all, I think.”
“Then you’re a coward!” The rich kid’s eyes gleamed dangerously.
Eadric crossed his arms over his chest. “Am I? Think about it, friend. Our Saxon kings tried to fight the Vikings for over two hundred years, and it hasn’t accomplished a thing.”
“Then what would you do?”
Eadric was not sure when this casual conversation had become so political, but he decided he did not mind. It made for an interesting evening. His grin stretched from ear to ear. “Whatever method was fastest and easiest, I suppose: a method that certainly would not be found on the battlefield.”
The boy was quiet a long time. Eadric shook his head at him.
“Don’t think on it so much. The king does what he must to protect and feed us; I am sure your father is the same. And if he isn’t … then to hell with him!”
The boy fixed Eadric with an awe-like stare. Then he got up and ran off, his mantle streaming behind him.
As Eadric watched him go, he felt that he had wasted his time and a great deal of leaking wine for nothing. He turned away with a scoff. Then he saw someone else watching him with a gaping mouth.
“What?” he snapped.
“Didn’t you realize?” said the eavesdropper. “That boy was Aetheling Edmund. The king’s own son!”
Eadric gulped, but this only seemed to push a knot into his stomach. He struggled to recall his own words, uncertain of whether he had just complimented the king or damned him to hell. Whatever the case, he thought it wise to hurry back to his own lord as soon as possible.