Written by Jayden Woods, Edited by Malcolm Pierce
To read this tale in another format, such as Epub, Mobibook (for Kindle Readers), or Pdf, go here: http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/15574
Today I release the tenth and last Lost Tale of Mercia, “Edmund the Aetheling.” Right where this short story ends, the novel will begin.
It has been a pleasure writing the Lost Tales and sharing them with you. On the Tuesday two weeks from now, October 5th, the full novel, Eadric the Grasper, releases on Amazon.
“… it was told the king, that [the Danes] would beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.”
—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 1002
Edmund put his hand over his mouth to trap his own breath, but his lungs continued heaving like a blacksmith’s bellows. His gloved fingers clutched the sword at his belt, a heavy thing that normally seemed presumptuous for a boy thirteen years of age, but now seemed the only thing capable of saving his life. Its primary flaw was that pulling it from its sheath would cause noise—noise he could not afford to make.
The boots around the corner shuffled against the stone, steel trinkets clinked, a cloak whooshed … and then all sounds faded as the source retreated.
A groan of dismay ripped from Edmund’s throat as he removed his hand from his lips. He clutched his chest as if his heart might escape. He could not believe what he had just overheard. It would take him a long while to make sense of it—time he was not sure he had.
He stumbled as he made his way back into the palace, his feet like blocks of wood on his legs. He went over the words in his memory over and over again, trying to unroll the plot they contained. But the more he unraveled the strings, the more easily they seemed to tangle in his mind.
As he walked by the king’s hall, a great stone chamber surrounded by the old Roman structure, his stomach growled. He could smell honey-glazed meats and spices. Even the rustic scent of ale hanging over everything added to his hunger. He could not explain why he had skipped tonight’s dinner, nor many other nights lately, at least not aloud. But he knew he hated listening to the noblemen’s driveling. All his father wanted to discuss was how to raise money for the next Danegald so that he could pay off the Vikings rather than fighting them. Then he would go on about food and women—topics that seemed trivial at a time of war. Edmund preferred to stop by the kitchens and pick out his victuals than to sit through such nonsense.
At last he reached his father’s bedroom. It was surrounded, as usual, by retainers and hearth companions. Many of them slumped from the weight of their drinking; others laughed with each other, sometimes putting their ears to the door of Ethelred’s chamber, then laughing some more. They stank of grease and unwashed clothes. Edmund remembered how when his mother had been alive, she made all the royal retainers take better care of themselves.
They frowned uncertainly as Edmund approached, noting how his face was long and blanched, his boots muddy and his cloak falling askance. “I need to speak to Father,” the young aetheling gasped. “Now.”
“Then go on in.” The man who spoke wore a smirk on his face. Chuckles spread through the group.
“I will, thank you.” Refusing to be daunted, Edmund stormed to the door and grabbed the handle. Immediately, a sound from within stopped him cold.
“Oh yes, right there.”
The voice belonged to a woman. But then he heard a grunt, which he suspected came from his father.
Edmund flushed and jumped from the door as if from a physical blow. The men roared with laughter, and yet even over their chortling he could still hear his father and the maiden squealing like pigs. Their joyous cries seemed to follow him down the hall as he raced away, his fists clenching even more violently than before. King Ethelred had only recently married Queen Emma of Normandy, but Edmund knew with certainty that those were not her moans carrying down the stone walls. She was only twelve years old.
He neared his own bedroom, but he could not bring himself to go inside. Instead he paced in front of the doorway, left and right and left again. He felt as if he might go into some sort of frenzy. He had such important information in his head, information that needed to come out, needed to be made sense of. And yet he could not think of what to do with it. His father’s behavior infuriated him, though it came as little surprise. And as for the men of his father’s court, he trusted none of them—especially after what he had heard today.
He snapped his fingers with a sudden revelation. “Aethelstan,” he said aloud. Yes, his older brother would at least listen without betraying him, and that was certainly something. He rushed down the hallway again, his cloak dragging heavily behind him.
On his way down the hall, however, he passed several of his own retainers. He glowered at them, for they had not been there to protect him when he needed them most. No doubt they were also angry at him, however, for wandering off so often, and not dining in the great hall like the rest of his family.
Then he saw Aydith. She stood staring out of an aperture at the moon, sadness making her pale face even whiter than usual. His heart stirred with sympathy for his younger sister, and he almost stopped to say hello. But his purpose demanded that he continue, so he passed her by.
With an angry huff, he stopped and turned to see Aydith hurrying towards him.
“Edmund, what’s the matter? Where have you been?”
“I … I … I have to speak to Aethelstan.”
He couldn’t hold it back anymore. “Lord Egil of Nottingham. I think he’s plotting to … to do something to Father.”
Aydith turned a notch paler, but did not yet panic. “Do what?”
“I’m … not sure. Something bad. I heard him talking about it, and worse, he addressed the man he spoke to as Lord Alfric.”
“That bastard!” Aydith blushed a little and crossed herself. “We’ll need proof. What specifically did you hear?”
It irritated Edmund that Aydith required some sort of proof and didn’t immediately believe him. “I should be talking to Aethelstan,” he grumbled.
“Very well then,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”
Together, they completed the weary procession to Aetheling Aethelstan’s room. For whatever reason, Edmund wished his sister would go away. As dearly as he cared for her, she always made matters so complicated, and tended to get even more frustrated than he did when plans went awry. Nevertheless, he could not refuse her help.
Aethelstan had already gone to bed, which nearly set Edmund off again. But Aydith promptly entered the room anyway, shushing away his bower-thegn, then shook their older brother awake.
He blinked sleepily through his pale lashes, already crusted from deep sleep. “What? What’s the matter?” He sat up and rubbed at his face. Aydith walked around the room lighting candles.
Aydith opened her mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it, and turned to Edmund.
“I think Father’s in danger,” he said as the light flared around them.
“Oh no! In danger of what?”
“Assassination,” Edmund hissed, though at Aydith’s prompt gasp, he regretted saying so. He only suspected that an assassination attempt was afoot based on what he had heard. But he could not be certain.
“Oh my God.” Aethelstan scratched his pale hair again, and seemed to be at a loss.
Aydith fixed Edmund with her fierce brown eyes, eyes she’d inherited from their mother. “Tell us everything you saw and heard,” she said. “Starting from the beginning.”
“Wait,” said Aethelstan. “Shouldn’t we be talking to Father about this?”
“He’s … he’s busy.” With a sigh that was a half growl, Edmund returned his concentration to the origin of the night’s events. “Here’s what happened. I was taking a walk around the palace around dusk. I ventured away from the walls into Lunden town—”
“Without your companions?” Aethelstan reproached him. “You know Father doesn’t like that!”
Edmund ignored this and forged on. “I saw men I recognized outside a tavern, though at first I couldn’t place their names. But they were Danish nobles, and they’ve been contributing to the witenagemot for the last few days—that much I knew. One of them I never learned the name of, but I heard him call the other man Egil, and then I realized he was Lord Egil of Nottingham. Anyway, I heard them talking about Father. They called him weak, and stupid, and incompetent.” The very words made him tremble with rage, even though he was not quite sure what the last one meant. “They said they needed to do something about him.”
He let this sink into his siblings’ ears, both of them growing paler as it did. After a short while Aydith said, “Weren’t there any specifics?”
“They lowered their voices after that,” said Edmund. “Which means it must have been bad! So I tried to get closer, and hid myself around the corner of the tavern.”
“What else did you hear?” said Aethelstan, his voice heavy with desperation.
“Only bits and pieces. They talked about Saint Brice’s Day coming up. They spoke of the food that would be served. Oh—and then a third person joined in! But I didn’t see his face.”
“Alfric!” breathed Aydith.
Edmund nodded grimly. “I did hear them call him Alfric.”
“There are lots of Alfrics,” said Aethelstan grumpily.
Aydith came to Edmund’s rescue. “There aren’t many Alfrics who would be plotting something with two Danish nobles,” she hissed. “He has had trouble getting Father to forgive him for his last offense, and I am sure he is eager to avenge the death of his son.”
“Yes,” said Edmund, grateful now that Aydith had come along, after all. “That’s exactly what I thought!”
Aethelstan now wore a deeply-set frown. “What else did they say about the food?”
“They said, ‘Think of how many people will be eating it.’ As if the more people they poisoned, the better.”
Aydith held up her hand and shook her head firmly. “Wait. Did you ever hear them say ‘poison’?”
“Well … no.”
She grunted. “Then this is all speculation.”
“Who the hell cares?” cried Edmund. “They’re obviously up to something!”
They scowled and looked to Aethelstan for help, whose frown only deepened. He heaved a sigh, then at last said, “We must go to Father. We’ll speak to him tomorrow during breakfast.”
Aydith turned a deep shade of red. “But we need more information before we go to Father. Otherwise—”
“Hush, Aydith.” Edmund was not very pleased with Aethelstan’s solution, either, but it was a plan, voiced by someone of authority, and at least now Edmund knew he could go to bed without tossing and turning all night. The burden no longer lay completely on his own shoulders. “Aethelstan’s right. We’ll talk to Father tomorrow.”
Aydith scowled so fiercely that Edmund actually moved back a step. But she saw that her brothers had made up their minds, and wisely pinched her lips together to avoid arguing anymore. “Very well,” she said at last. “Good luck with that!”
She turned and stormed out.
The brothers exchanged weary looks, then retired gladly to their own beds.
In the morning, Edmund at last got his father’s attention. Most of his wise men had not yet arrived for the ongoing witenagmot, so the palace and dining hall remained mostly empty.
Nonetheless, addressing his father was no easy feat. King Ethelred seemed to suffer from wine-poisoning and lack of sleep. He chewed grimly upon his morning meal, waving away most of the people who yapped for his attention, the curls of his beard bouncing rhythmically as he struggled to chew away his breakfast. He yanked at the cloak and brooches around his neck as if they were choking him.
Edmund addressed his father with a timid voice, seeing little reaction in Ethelred’s gray eyes despite the urgency of his voice. “I have something very important to tell you.” Ethelred just grunted, but at least that meant he was listening. Aethelstan sat nearby, nodding his encouragement. Edmund leaned close to their father, his fine linen sleeves crushing the crumbs of the table. “The Danes are plotting against you.”
Ethelred’s eyes turned sluggishly towards his son. Beyond this, he did not seem taken aback at all. “Yes, and?”
Edmund drew back, blinking rapidly with surprise. “And you should do something!” His blood roared in his ears, deafening. Here was his chance to tell his father everything, and he was ruining it.
Aethelstan came to his rescue, speaking in calm and reassuring tones to the king. “Edmund doesn’t mean just the Vikings, Father. He means there are Danes living nearby who wish to do you harm.”
Ethelred looked from one young teen to the next, drool collecting on his lips as he delayed chewing. “And this is news to you both? For heaven’s sake, the Danes try to cut my throat every chance they get. Edmund—tell me how your sword lessons have been going. Have you improved your parrying skills yet?”
Edmund could not even come up with a response, so confused was he by the turn of conversation. His lips flapped open and shut, but no words escaped.
Aethelstan made another attempt at salvaging the conversation. “Father, Edmund overheard one of your most trusted men, Lord Egil …” He looked to Edmund for approval, and Edmund nodded. “Lord Egil seemed to be plotting something wicked, Father, on Saint Brice’s Day.”
“Wicked? How?” asked Ethelred. But now his eyes were darting about, infused at last with energy. They fixed on Edmund. “What did you hear?”
Edmund gulped. Should he say that he heard them planning to poison Ethelred? But what if he was wrong? And what if he sent his father into a senseless panic, before anything useful might be done? “They were … talking about the food, Father,” he whispered. “And … and how many people were going to be eating it.”
Ethelred stared at him a long, long time. He didn’t move at all. His nose turned red from the cold air and lack of blood circulation.
Edmund could not guess what was going on behind the king’s petrified expression. Was he convinced? Or did he need something more? “And … they were talking about all this to none other than Alfric of Mercia!” he blurted.
Ethelred dropped his dirk with a tremendous clatter. His elbows sank onto the table and his head fell between them. Edmund sensed victory and exchanged a look of excitement with Aethelstan; but when they looked back at their father, they found him trembling violently.
“Father?” Edmund reached out a hand to the king, but dared not touch him.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” Ethelred got up suddenly, his chair falling behind him. He turned, fell to his knees, and retched upon the floor.
Edmund turned away, cringing with disgust as the royal breakfast of sausages and eggs plopped from Ethelred’s mouth into the rushes. Once the king’s hacking and spitting spent itself, Ethelred got up and groaned, “Well, clean this up!” A few servants rushed uncertainly forward to do what they could with their woolen washcloths.
King Ethelred returned to his chair with a resounding thump.
Edmund and Aethelstan sat in a state of suspended wincing as they stared upon their father’s drooping face. He exhaled heavily, and Edmund resisted turning from his foul breath.
“Alfric has been well-behaved lately, and very helpful to me,” said Ethelred. “I think that he regrets the wrong-doings of his past, and he’s full of fresh ideas for the future.” Edmund could hardly believe he was hearing such words. Had Alfric already worked his way back into the king’s good graces? “As for Egil,” the king continued relentlessly, “I like him. I like him a lot.”
He surprised them by looking up and fixing Edmund’s eyes with his own. Life flared briefly from deep within the wells of the king’s gaze. “Tell me, Edmund: are you certain that he means me harm? Would you put your hand on a holy relic and swear that Egil is working with Alfric to kill or otherwise dethrone me?”
Edmund had not expected this. He realized, with much surprise, that he had not really expected to get through to his father at all. All of his huffing and heaving had been a desperate attempt to get his father’s attention. Now that he had it—now that Ethelred took him seriously—he could not bring himself to say, Yes, I swear. He just couldn’t.
He could not even sustain his father’s gaze. He looked down into the wood of the table. He couldn’t look at his brother, either. He wondered if Aethelstan was disappointed in him. He knew without a doubt that Aydith would be.
“Just as I thought,” Ethelred sighed. “You boys are becoming as fearful as I often feel. Why should I trust anyone these days? I don’t. And yet I have to.” A servant gave him a new goblet of water. He picked it up and downed it in a few gulps, loosing silver streams down his beard and necklaces. He lifted a hand to push back his frizzy hair, but this small movement betrayed a violent tremor in his arm. “I live from one day to the next, my sons. Sometimes that is all we can do. It’s all we can do.”
Edmund no longer felt upset or angry. He did not even feel very anxious. He simply felt depressed.
“What would you have me do?” Ethelred looked up as if poising the question to God Himself. Edmund and Aethelstan might as well have left the room. This was now between the king and the only power greater than himself. “Have Egil beheaded or exiled without reason? Think of what they’ll say of me then. ‘Paranoid.’ ‘Cowardly.’ Bah! Perhaps I should just declare war on the Danelaw. What do you think of that?” He drained down another goblet of water, as if it was ale that could wash away his sorrows. But it gave him no such relief. When he next spoke, the coarseness of his voice brought bumps to Edmund’s skin. “‘The sin of thy mother shall not be washed out but by much blood of the kingdom’s wretched inhabitants; and such evils shall come upon the English nation as they have never suffered from the time they came to Engla-lond until then.’ Hm.”
Then he stared out the window, and seemed to forget that anyone else was present.
Despite the warmth of his clothes and the glow of a nearby hearth-fire, Edmund felt cold to his core. He drew away from the table, his appetite gone, again.
He could not think of anything else to say, and Ethelred no longer seemed in the mood to listen, anyway.
So he turned and left the hall.
Aydith found him dragging his feet through the courtyard, kicking occasionally at the frosty mud. A group of chickens squawked and scattered away from him. A few royal retainers loitered nearby, watching him reluctantly.
When he saw her approaching, he sighed with dismay, then steeled himself.
Unexpectedly, she did not release a torrent of anger upon him. She looked just as sad and miserable as he did. And for awhile, she simply stood there next to him, not saying a word.
“What do we do?” Edmund surprised himself by being the first to speak, and asking such an important question while doing so.
Aydith’s lips twisted from side to side as she considered this. It amazed Edmund whenever he saw his sister do child-like things, for she was so mature that she often seemed like a grown woman. “First, we need to figure out exactly what Egil is up to.”
“Oh, forget about Egil! Father likes him,” he sneered, “and I was probably just being paranoid!” He picked up a stick and threw it at an unsuspecting hen, who attempted to escape by flapping her flimsy wings.
Aydith fixed him with a level stare. “I don’t think you’re paranoid,” she said. “I believe you completely. Even if he’s not out to poison the entire witenagemot, I think Egil would do something against Father if he had the chance.”
“You think,” said Edmund. “But do you know?”
Her little nose pinched as she restrained her frustration. “I just … do.”
“See? You’re as bad as the rest of us. Forget it. Forget everything.”
“Edmund.” A tone of pleading entered her voice. “Maybe we could get Father to do something so we didn’t have to. It just needs to be something … definite. But also something non-confrontational.”
“Oh enough!” It all sounded even more ridiculous coming from his sister’s childish mouth. He wanted to laugh about it but he couldn’t. All he could do was walk away.
He heard the chinks of shifting metal as his companions moved to follow him, but he whirled on them quickly. “Leave me alone. All of you!”
He hurried away, and it came as both a relief and a disappointment that no one bothered to follow him, after all.
He spent most of his morning hacking at a dummy with his sword, practicing his techniques and stances, but mostly just hacking. He pretended that it had a real face, and that face took the shape of various people he knew, like Egil, or Alfric, or even his father.
Once he’d exhausted himself with the sword, his stomach growled desperately, so at last he went to the kitchens and ate. Then he paced about the palace for a long while, and even tried listening in on the witenagemot. He did not get far. The doors were shut tight, and the retainers around the area gave him warning glances. Edmund scowled back. He could have attended the witenagemot from the start if he really wanted to, but if so he would not have been allowed to leave, just as he could not now interrupt them. The thought of listening to the wise men’s useless quibbling all day made him sick to his stomach.
He decided to walk to town again, even though it was a strange time to do so. He knew he would get strange looks from people who saw a young teen strolling the streets alone wearing fancy clothes, but today he did not even care. He yearned for a sense of normalcy beyond the stifling walls of the palace.
He had not gone very far when he ran suddenly into Alfric.
He didn’t recognize the man at first. Edmund had only seen him as a young boy, after all, and one of his most striking features—his hair—had been largely removed, chopped clean off his head. Edmund would have passed him by without a second thought, but Alfric was not about to let that happen.
Edmund squinted at the dark shape outlined by the sinking white sun. Then he blinked with surprise at the stubbed yellow curls remaining around the man’s forehead and the pinched, angled smile hovering above his chin. The prince froze, all but for his hand, which twitched involuntarily towards the hilt of his sword. Alfric’s eyes flicked to watch the movement. He took a step closer, his long red cloak spreading behind him. Edmund gulped.
“I’m so glad I ran into you,” said Alfric. “I need to talk to you about something.”
“Step back.” Edmund scrambled away, nearly embarrassing himself by tripping over a stone in the road.
“Easy. I just don’t want anyone to hear us. Maybe we should talk over there?”
He pointed to a dark alley between buildings, and Edmund’s heart jumped into his throat. How foolish would he be to follow Alfric to a place like that? “We can talk here,” he said, struggling to sound firm. “Or back in the palace.”
“That would be even worse,” said Alfric. His expression twisted into one of impatience. “I’m not here to play games, boy. Will you hear me out or not?”
Edmund hoped he did not look as terrified as he felt. He glimpsed the sword under Alfric’s cloak. It was smaller and simpler than his own, despite the sizes of their respective owners, but in that case it would be even easier to quietly unsheathe and use to slit someone’s throat. He wished desperately that he had brought along his companions, after all. But it was too late for that now. Either he toughened up and listened to what Alfric had to say, or he ran away and wondered for the rest of his life whether he could have uncovered an important secret.
“Very well,” he breathed at last.
Alfric bowed his head and swept his hand towards the alley. “After you, my lord.” How quickly his tone had changed!
Edmund wanted to insist that Alfric go first, but he saw a gleam of amusement in Alfric’s eyes, as if that was exactly what he hoped for. He would not give him that satisfaction. Feeling miserable enough to die anyway, Edmund trudged ahead. Soon he stood in between two walls and a large stack of wood, so that there was only one way out, which quickly became closed by Alfric.
Alfric filled the space happily, though he feigned a grave expression as he leaned against the wall. “Now Edmund,” he said. “I think you’ve met Lord Egil.”
Edmund tried to swallow, but found his mouth too dry.
Alfric leaned close, lowering his voice almost to a whisper. “He’s up to no good.”
The aetheling resisted the urge to step back from Alfric’s piercing gaze. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“I spoke to him only yesterday. He’s going to do something to the food on Saint Brice’s Day.”
Hope stirred in Edmund’s belly, but he doused it quickly. “Do what, damn it?”
Alfric smirked. “Poison it, of course.”
There. Someone had said it at last. The truth was revealed. And yet as he looked at the smile pulling one corner of Alfric’s lips, a shiver went through Edmund. He should not trust this man at all. This man had once taken his father’s battle plans directly to the Vikings. His son had paid the price for the crime. And now he was back … for what? What if Aydith was right? What if he wanted revenge? Or what if he was truly so cowardly he didn’t even care for that; he simply wanted to gain Ethelred’s favor once more, whatever it took?
If Aydith were here, Edmund thought, she would pester Lord Alfric with questions. It always annoyed Edmund when she asked lots of questions. But she also seemed to know about everything as a result. So perhaps he should ask some questions, himself. “Um …” He shifted about on his feet, then crossed his arms over his chest. “How do you know?”
“I heard him say it,” said Alfric. “Yesterday.” He cocked an eyebrow, as if he and Edmund shared a little secret. Edmund wondered whether the banished lord knew about his conversation with Ethelred that very morning. Edmund guessed that he did.
“So why did you wait this long to tell someone?”
“I wanted to find out more. So I did. Egil has a network of other Danes helping him; they will all work together to poison the soup. I don’t know who all of them are, however.”
“Oh God,” said Edmund.
Alfric nodded gravely. “I can think of only one way to surely escape this. Ethelred, his family, and his most loyal men must go somewhere else to feast. It need not be suspicious, though you must of course keep it quiet. I know of a great manor down the river. It could be like a retreat, if you will.”
The idea was simple enough. If a plot was afoot in Lundenburg, why not just leave for a little while? Then Edmund clenched his fists. It was a coward’s way out—just like Alfric to suggest. And in the end, it would not destroy the threat, only delay it.
He felt he had heard enough of Alfric’s driveling. He needed to go somewhere else to think about it. He doubted Alfric would tell him anything else useful, and the dark confinement of the alley grew stifling. “I will think on this,” he said. He made to go, moving around Alfric to the best of his ability.
He flinched with surprise as Alfric’s hand wrapped around his arm. “I haven’t finished speaking with you,” he snarled.
“But I have finished with you,” said Edmund. He looked desperately about, but no one in the streets so much as glanced his direction. Did they not care what was going on here?
Sensing the aetheling’s hopes, Alfric tightened his grip and swung Edmund back in front of him, so that no one from the street would see him at all. A white mist spread around Alfric’s face as the air froze his huffing breath. “Listen Edmund, I’m giving you a way to save your family! And you’re just going to walk away like you never even spoke to me?”
He shook Edmund hard, and the aetheling flapped about like a rag-doll. Much to his own shame, he felt weak and helpless with fear. Why was Alfric doing this to him? Why was this happening to him at all? “What do you want?” he cried.
Alfric stopped shaking him, his voice calming slightly. “I want you to do as you should. Save your family. Do what I’ve suggested. Let me help you. Be a hero, Edmund.”
Edmund stared with terror into the splintered colors of Alfric’s irises. A horrible possibility entered his mind. What if this suggestion was a trap in itself?
“Edmund?” His brow furrowed with concern. “Do you not trust me? Is that it? Well … consider this, aetheling.”
Alfric pressed him to the wall with one forearm, while his other hand yanked his sword from its scabbard. A cry ripped from Edmund’s throat in harmony with the ringing steel. Alfric replaced the arm against Edmund’s throat with his blade.
“What do you think of this?” Alfric leaned close to him. “I could kill you, Edmund, right here, right now. No one would know. I could strip you of your valuables so you looked like the corpse of a miserable peasant. I could even give myself a little nick on the arm and claim I tried to save you from the thief that did it. Perhaps your father would welcome me back with open arms for my bravery.” Edmund moaned with dismay. “But I won’t do any of that, of course.”
Alfric stepped back and re-sheathed his sword with a quick and clumsy movement. Edmund realized the lord was shaking nearly as violently as himself. As relieved as he was to be released, spite filled his veins, for he knew the only reason Alfric did not do such a thing was because of his own cowardice.
“You see, my lord?” The ealdorman’s voice cracked slightly. “I wish you no harm. All I ask is that you do not ignore my warning, and tell me what you want to do next, so I may plan accordingly.”
“I … I …” Edmund could hardly think straight. His fear blurred all of his thoughts like a thick, white veil.
“Edmund, tell me what you’re going to do.”
“GO TO HELL!”
Edmund shoved blindly at Alfric, throwing himself forward with all of his might. He was not exactly sure how it happened, only that for a moment his limbs tangled with Alfric’s, and then suddenly he was free. Then he took off running.
He did not care where he went, so far as it was far away from Alfric. He did not even care to run towards the palace, either. What would he do once he returned? Tell his family what Alfric had said? And what if Alfric was only leading his family into another trap?
He listened to the wind gush past his ears as his thoughts roared within his head. The more he thought about it, the more perfect he realized such a plan would be. Alfric could lure out all of Ethelred’s “most loyal men” away from their their guards and retainers, who would be suspected of consorting with Lord Egil. All of them would go to an isolated spot, and there they could easily be slain. It seemed a bit far-fetched, even for Alfric. But Edmund would not put it past him. And even if the trap was not so cruel as that, what else bad might happen? No matter how politely Ethelred went about it, such a gesture would send a clear message to all of the men left behind—mostly Danish nobles of the north—that he did not trust them, nor care for their company in a feast.
People gave Edmund strange looks and yelled at him, but he did not stop until exhaustion overcame him. In truth he was still not very far from the palace, but his fear and despair drained him more than any physical effort. He collapsed on a wooden step, crumpling under the weight of his responsibilities, and broke down in tears.
He did not know for how long he cried. It felt incredibly good, somehow, and he did not know when he might have another chance to cry like this without his companions or someone else of importance watching. He felt sad for himself, and his entire family, and all they had to endure. How could they protect Engla-lond when it was so hard just to watch their own backs? He thought of all the horrible things people said about the king; he thought of how many times he had felt equally mad at his father. But how could one function when plagued with so much doubt and uncertainty? How could Ethelred act wisely from one day to the next when at any moment, his own friends could turn on him?
“What’s this?” called a young man. “What ails you, my friend?”
Edmund looked up, annoyed by the interruption. But the sight of the churl who addressed him gave him pause. The peasant, only a few years older than himself, stood and spoke like a nobleman. He had long curly hair that reminded him of Alfric’s, though he quickly forced this thought away, recognizing this as the paranoia his father had warned him about. The fellow seemed to be on hard times, whatever his station, for his clothes were ill-fitting and coming apart at the seams. The horse he held next to him carried a casket of wine, leaking a small red river down the its belly. But none of these misfortunes seemed to phase the young man, whose eyes twinkled with optimism.
“Who are you?” Edmund grumbled at last.
“Eadric of Staffordshire.”
Edmund did not recognize the name. But if he was here from Staffordshire, might he be a thegn hoping to make a name for himself at the king’s witenagemot? Or even one of the lesser wise men?
“Now tell me who has wronged you,” Eadric went on. “A lord? A churchman? Or perhaps a woman? I can help you with any of the above—especially the last.”
“Can you help me with a father?”
“I know little of fathers.” Eadric’s face pinched as if the word put a bad taste in his mouth. “But what has he done to you?”
“He has done nothing to me, but everyone else complains of him. They call him foolish and incompetent.” He glared at Eadric. “I bet you don’t even know what that word means.”
“It means he cannot do his job.”
Edmund scowled. He hadn’t realized the word was so insulting.
“If you ask me,” Eadric went on, “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?”
“I … think so.” He didn’t. But he wanted to.
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. Consider the king. He is a king! And yet do you hear how people ridicule him?”
Edmund blinked with surprise.
“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.”
Could it be? Someone who actually approved of his father’s actions? “They say he should fight more. But he won’t.”
The young man shifted about uncertainly. “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!”
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’s 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.”
Edmund thought of what Aydith had said. Ethelred needed to do something both definite and non-confrontational. Was that the sort of thing this poor noble had in mind?
Eadric shook his head lackadaisically. “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!”
It was the last unexpected nugget thrown Edmund’s way: this fellow truly had no idea who he was talking to! Unable to endure any more surprises, Edmund got up and ran off again.
This time he aimed his feet towards the palace. The strange teenager’s cheerful and cocky mood had gotten through to him somehow. If Eadric had not known who he was speaking to, then perhaps he actually meant what he said about Ethelred? Perhaps he could actually be trusted?
And perhaps if this Eadric—who despised fighting and liked easy solutions—had an idea of any value at all, then might King Ethelred actually heed it?
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