To prove her innocence of crimes against her own son, King Edward, Emma of Normandy must walk barefoot over nine scalding ploughshares and come out unscathed.
Written by Jayden Woods
Edited by Malcolm Pierce
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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.
“And this year, fourteen nights before the mass of St. Andrew, it was advised the king, that he and Earl Leofric and Earl Godwin and Earl Siward with their retinue, should ride from Gloucester to Winchester unawares upon the lady [Emma]; and they deprived her of all the treasures that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king, and also since …”
—Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 1043
Late 1040’s A.D.
“Is the tomb secure?”
Queen Emma’s question hung in the air for a few moments, sending a coarse echo through the chilled stones of the underground hallway. The abbess of Wherwell, who had served as Emma’s prison warden before following her here to Winchester, blinked at the queen through tightly-narrowed lids. Abbess Mildred’s woolen wimple wrapped her hair and neck completely, leaving nothing but a small weaselly face to peer out at the queen. The manner of cruelty suggested by Mildred’s beady eyes never ceased to amaze Emma, especially when compared to the kind but sharp-witted soul that actually lurked behind them. Those same eyes now twinkled with a combination of daring and caution.
“I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘secure,’” said the abbess with her nasally voice.
Queen Emma stared into the flickering shadows of the Old Minster before her. Once upon a time, this hollow chamber full of shifting shadows and the ghostly echo of silence might have sparked her imagination and ignited many nightmares. Now, as an old woman of nearly sixty years who had seen murder, war, and treachery of every sort, she took comfort in such darkness and quietude. She could imagine little that would frighten her beyond what she had already witnessed. These days, she only feared that her own life would be forgotten, or—maybe worse—that people would remember her for false and vile deeds she never committed.
She sighed heavily, tiring of the game she must play, and at last replied, “By secure, I mean that my prayer will fall on friendly ears, and none other.”
“It is secure enough for that, my lady. Only the Lord and His own good agents will hear your prayers.” A smile cracked Mildred’s thin lips. “Of that I can assure you.”
“Thank you, Mildred.” Emma moved forward, her robes whispering against the stones.
A hard shoulder knocked Emma’s as a housecarl moved around her. Emma jolted, having forgotten the warrior’s presence. The iron of his sword flashed in the candlelight and his chain mail jangled with obscene loudness. Even now, after all the humiliation she had suffered, Queen Emma had not grown accustomed to the rudeness with which King Edward’s guards treated her. No matter what the charges against her, they should never forget that she had been the wife of two kings, and the mother of two more.
The housecarl continued his brazen sweep of the chamber, grabbing a torch from the wall and thrusting its flames into the shadows of the Old Minster. Eventually, he approached the tomb of Saint Swithin, Emma’s own destination.
Abbess Mildred’s piercing voice rang suddenly through the room. “May God forgive you,” she cried, “for your appalling disrespect for his holy ground. For I certainly do not!”
The housecarl stopped and turned, baring his grimy teeth. Emma gulped, recognizing the man as one of Earl Goodwin’s guards rather than King Edward’s. Some time ago that would have been significant, back when Edward still had his wits about him and recognized Lord Goodwin as one of his most dangerous opponents. Now Goodwin had slithered into King Edward’s mind like a snake through his ear, convincing Edward to turn against his own mother, while Edward continued to trust one of the most skilled liars in all of Engla-lond. Goodwin certainly shared some of the skills of his “great uncle,” Eadric Streona the silver-tongued traitor, even if the two were never really related by blood.
The thought of Eadric the Grasper seemed to transport her to another time and place, through a maze of lies and treacheries, into the miserable years of her role as King Ethelred’s wife, to the moment that Eadric changed the fate of the country forever …
Weighed down by the burden of her memories, Emma hunched into the embrace of her linen robes. A lock of her gray hair brushed her chin, having escaped the snug wrap of her wimple and crown. She let it stay there as a reminder of how her own dignity was unraveling. She preferred to huddle in the reality of her modest clothing than fall too deeply into her own mind. Sometimes, remembering the figures of her past felt like stepping into a room full of cobwebs. If she touched one memory, all the others would cling and pull at her until she drowned in their silky grasp.
“Lady Emma will not be able to escape from this room,” said Abbess Mildred to the housecarl, returning Emma’s mind to her current predicament. “We’re underground, for heaven’s sake. Can the poor woman not have just a few moments of privacy before she …” Mildred choked on her own high-pitched voice. She turned away, but couldn’t hide that her beady little eyes blinked back tears. “Before she must face judgment?” (more…)