I was born in the Midlands of England and now live with my husband and child in the South. I have had a varied career working in banks, libraries, charities and for the last 10 years, secondary and further education. I always ignored the desire to write, thinking it wasn’t a valid career but can’t ignore it anymore. I have had several factual articles published and this has given me the confidence to publish some of my fiction.
It is a time of uneasy truce, of two races living side-by-side, inter-marrying even, but forever on the look out for treachery among their neighbors.
They meet, they bathe together and they consort. Life is short, fun is likely to be brief, and opportunity has to be seized wherever it can be found without unleashing long-held rivalries and carnage.
Then the youthful Dane, Ragnar, falls in love with Aelfwyn the Angle who is already promised by duty to one of her own village.
Ragnar and Aelfwyn’s passionate love affair is a secret which will never be hidden for long, but theirs is not the only secret around.
When Ragnar finds himself charged with murder, he and Aelfwyn are forcibly parted. But is Ragnar really a cold-blooded, cynical killer or is there a more sinister plot being played out?
“Come on!” urged Saehild, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm. “The quicker we get there the quicker we’ll come back.”
Aelfwyn, being shorter and thinner than her younger sister, found it harder to wield the pails. The long, stone wall edged path to the well led downhill, and she hated carrying the heavy pails back up again.
“I’m looking forward to the wedding feast of Eappa and Geatfleda next week, aren’t you? It’ll be a change from daily tasks. When I’m married I’ll have slaves and they’ll do all the work while I enjoy myself.”
“You’ve got to find a rich husband first.”
Aelfwyn imagined it wouldn’t be difficult. Fair of face and curvaceous of body, men couldn’t resist Saehild. Their parents insisted she should not get married until her fifteenth birthday however, and as that loomed, soon Aelfwyn would lose her annoying but amusing companion.
Leafless, icy trees eerily overhung the sunken path through the wood.
As they turned the last corner, they saw two figures by the well, wearing the red woollen cloaks of Jarl Thorvald’s men, stout leather boots, and trousers with garters. Complaining to each other, their breath clouded around them as they chipped at the frozen water with their spears.
The girls hesitated a few yards away.
“Will they attack us?” whispered Saehild dramatically, clutching at her sister.
Aelfwyn sighed. “Probably not, but we’d better wait until they’ve gone.”
The taller Dane abruptly looked up and smiled. His dark red hair was wavy but tied back in a plait over his shoulders and he wore a fur cap instead of a helmet, as he wasn’t in battle. With skin rather darker than most Danes, he looked pleasant, not handsome but inscrutable, especially as his well groomed beard and moustache covered most of his lower face.
“Come,” he said. “Do not be frightened.”
The other turned too, and smiled. Now, he really was good looking. Straight golden hair, his eyes big and blue, his lips an attractive shape. His moustache and beard were fortunately less full than the other’s, as this revealed his beauty. The sisters gasped. He held his hand out in a welcoming motion so they stepped forward as one.
“We break ice,” said the handsome one, bending over his task while the other kept watch.
The girls watched, fascinated. Saehild pretended to re-arrange her head-rail, letting her flaxen blond, soft fine hair slip out. She took great care of it, unlike many girls, and owned three combs.
“Saehild!” Aelfwyn glared at her, shocked at her inappropriate behaviour.
“We’ve all got hair, it’s not something to be hidden,” she retorted.
“There!” The handsome Dane pulled up the bucket from the well, and gestured for them to come forward. He then tipped water into their pails, smiling at both of them until they blushed.
Aelfwyn thought, however, that he smiled more at her sister. The same as every other man. Men were so weak and easily understood. They saw a pretty face and were instantly besotted. It amused her to see so many of them pursuing her sister, who often didn’t notice. Saehild was tall and well formed, obviously healthy and a promising prospect for bearing children.
Being born underweight meant Aelfwyn had always struggled to grow and throw off illnesses. As a result she had remained short and thin, despite eating as much as she could.
Grateful that her mother had kept her rather than abandoning such a weak baby, even so she wished to be as attractive as her sister. Everyone always thought she was the younger one, and even by eighteen, men hadn’t shown an interest. They no doubt thought of her as unpromising breeding stock.
As she and her sister stepped back, feebly mumbling “Thank you”, the taller Dane began filling his own pails. He seemed to be instructing his reluctant companion, who turned back to the girls.
“Bjarni.” He pointed to himself, bowing his head politely and then pointed to his taller companion. “Ragnar.”
“Saehild,” she gushed in delight. “My sister, Aelfwyn.”
Ragnar did not seem pleased however, and said something sharp to Bjarni in their own language. Bjarni rolled his eyes and Saehild giggled.
“We should go now,” said Aelfwyn, realising their vulnerable position alone in the wood with two unfamiliar Danes.
“Goodbye. See you again,” said Saehild, before Aelfwyn could drag her away.
Bjarni looked after them with interest.
“What d’you think, then?” he asked Ragnar as the girls rounded the corner and disappeared from view. “Would you fuck them?”
“Yes, probably,” his friend said unthinkingly. “I mean, no! We shouldn’t be associating with the locals. We have our jobs to do, we should-“
“By the gods, you’re so boring! You wouldn’t fuck either of them just because of your job?”
“The Jarl said we must be honourable if we’re training to be Huskarlr. At your age, you’re supposed to have grown out of fucking around.” Ragnar’s job meant everything to him, he had no family and Jarl Thorvald was the only father he had ever known.
“I’m not nineteen yet. I hope by twenty I won’t be like you and have forgotten how to do it.” Bjarni pretended to doze off against the wall so Ragnar prodded his leg with his spear.
“Get off! I’ll have the tall, pretty one. Those breasts, you could get lost in them. I bet she’s a dragon in the sack-“
“Calm down or I’ll throw this ice over you. Come on.” Ragnar set off with two pails, Bjarni following cheerfully with the others.
“Think they come here every day?”
“I expect so. But we’re only on water duty for the fortnight, so don’t get too excited. There are loads of local girls for you to harass.”
“Water duty! It should be the women doing such tasks, not us.”
“It’s to teach us humility. You need to learn it.”
Bjarni kicked at him- no easy task while carrying pails of water- but Ragnar managed to fight back. Continuing to bicker, they rounded the corner in the opposite direction to the Anglisc, heading back to Hallfridby.
* * *
“That was a nice start to the day,” said Saehild on the way back to their home. “Bjarni is so handsome, do you think father would let me marry him?”
“I doubt it. Father’s very traditional, as you know. He will want you to marry a nice Anglisc boy. Someone like Wilmund.”
“Ugh, Wilmund! He never washes his hair, he smells bad.” She giggled.
Aelfwyn giggled too. “Or Deorweald. Father would approve of him.”
“Deorweald? He must be about twenty five! Almost old enough to be my father!”
“Or what about-“
“Oh stop talking about these horrible Anglisc. They’re all ugly and stinking. Give me a beautiful Dane any day. I want Bjarni to rush into our village, fight off all my suitors and carry me off to his hall. Or a hut he’s built just for us, we’d live happily ever after and have twenty children.”
“Yes, wouldn’t they be beautiful? The boys would look like him, the girls like me.”
“Where would I live?”
“You could have a corner in our hut, you could help me look after the twenty children, I’d need help.”
“Do you think they’ll be at the well tomorrow?”
“We have to fetch water anyway, so they know where to find us. What did you think of the other one? Ragnar was it?”
“He’s alright. I’m sure he fancies you anyway.”
Saehild nodded smugly. “I saw him looking at me slyly. I could marry Bjarni and have Ragnar as my lover.” She giggled.
“You would definitely have twenty children then, with both of them loving you!” Aelfwyn giggled too. She didn’t intend to get married. If no man wanted her, she wouldn’t want them either.
* * *
The next day, Saehild hurried her sister off to the well so early that her mother, Cwenburg, stared in shock. Intrigued by the meeting yesterday, Aelfwyn was not reluctant however. The Danes kept to themselves socially, with their own feasting days and customs, but were approachable sometimes. She had heard tales of fearsome Vikingr marauders in the past, but none she had met caused her problems, so why not see what they were really like?
They waited at the well for a time, but the men did not appear, however slowly Saehild filled the pails.
They were just about to leave, when a flash of red caught Aelfwyn’s eye. “Look!”
Two cloaked figures were hastening along through the leafless trees.
“Is it them?”
A few seconds of uncertainty led to Ragnar and Bjarni appearing on the path in a hurry, then slowing their pace to a casual saunter.
“Don’t be too friendly,” Aelfwyn warned her sister.
“Morning,” said Bjarni, smiling. “No ice today?”
“No, the weather’s warmer today. Thank you for yesterday, we wouldn’t have had any water if it wasn’t for you,” babbled Saehild.
Neither Dane understood her rapid speech.
“Thank you for helping us yesterday,” said Aelfwyn plainly, and their expressions cleared.
“You are welcome,” said Ragnar, bowing slightly.
* * *
So for the next two weeks, the sisters met the Danes at the well. Conversation was understandably limited, but they managed.
Aelfwyn often found herself fetching the water while Saehild dawdled. The Danes politely waited for her to get all the water she needed, but she could hear they were both talking to Saehild, competing for her attention. It wasn’t fair. Why should she do all the work while her idle sister sat around resting? She banged the bucket and pail around carelessly, making as much noise as possible. She crashed around so much that one of the pails slipped out of her hand and down the well.
Shrieking, she clutched at it, but luckily, a Danish hand moved quicker. Ragnar grabbed at the pail and almost fell down the well reaching for it. His arms were far longer than hers but even he only just saved it in time.
Aelfwyn snatched it from him. “Thank you,” she muttered.
“You are welcome.”
She looked up to see him suppressing a smile, but carried on filling her pails in silence.
“So, you come to our feast in two weeks?” Bjarni said to Saehild. Ragnar rolled his eyes.
“Sorry about him,” he said. “He likes women better than work.”
Aelfwyn felt a giggle rising in her throat.
“I’m sorry about my sister too. She is the same. Except men, not women of course.”
“Is she married?”
“No.” Aelfwyn sighed. How often had she been asked this by one of her sister’s enamoured suitors? “My parents say not before she is fifteen.”
“She better get married soon. Or she will be in trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean- er- she will be in the bed of a man soon if she behaves like that. Sorry.”
Aelfwyn looked back at Saehild sitting on the surrounding wall with Bjarni. She seemed to be teaching him Anglisc, amid much giggling. They sat very close, gazing into each other’s eyes.
Ragnar realised he had never seen such a small woman as Aelfwyn before- he could see right over her head, even when she stood up and he sat down. He didn’t realise adults could be so tiny. He surreptitiously put his hand next to hers and was amazed it looked about twice the size. His fingers were like sausages compared to her twigs. No, not twigs, something softer, like-
She turned back and he snatched his hand away quickly.
“I am not my sister’s keeper. I mean, I am not her mother or father.”
“That is true.”
“It’s her business what she does. I am used to men chasing after her.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You have men chasing after you, as you are the older sister?”
“None of your business!” So he hadn’t made the usual mistake.
He got on with filling his pails in silence.
“What about you, Dane?”
“No, I do not have men chasing me. I would cut their heads off.”
They exchanged glances, then burst out laughing. Aelfwyn glanced warily at Saehild. So much for her disapproval of associating with Danes, she behaved the same as her sister.
“They do not see us, do not worry.”
So he also guessed her thoughts. Obviously a worldly wise man.
“You come to our feast also?”
“Oh! Er- yes. Maybe I will.” She blushed with surprise.
“It is Jolablot, the coming of spring.”
“It isn’t spring yet.”
He shrugged. “It will come. We like to feast, spring or not.”
* * *
Too soon the fortnight ended and the two Danes had to finish their water duty, which saddened them all.
“Jolablot starts at the next full moon,” said Bjarni on the last day at the well. “We will meet you at the burnt tree between our villages.” They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.
“Oh God, I am so excited!” squealed Saehild, almost spilling the water. “Something to look forward to.”
The wedding feast of Eappa and Geatfleda had been the same as any other, with the same old people saying and doing the same old things, so a Danish feast would be a novelty.
“How can we stop our family finding out?”
“We could ask Sigulf to keep watch. When he went out to meet a girl last week, I told Father he was helping with the lambing, so he owes me.”
“Very well.” Aelfwyn felt a flutter inside. Their first Danish feast. What would it be like? Tired of being sensible and careful, it was time to relax and enjoy herself. The Danes at the well hadn’t been frightening or violent, so surely the others could not be either.
* * *
After the next day’s tasks had been completed, Aelfwyn’s father, Aldulf, called her to him.
“Daughter, you are now eighteen and no sign of a husband. I have taken an offer from Eadbald for your betrothal. As you know, his wife recently died and he has eight children to care for. He has long admired you and it is time to make a contract.”
“B-but Father, Eadbald is over thirty.” She visualised the portly man with his customary vacant expression. A potter and rather unexciting.
“That is no age! I am over thirty too. Consider yourself fortunate to have one offer. Your mother and I want to marry you off before Saehild’s wedding, which will surely be soon as she has so many suitors.”
Aelfwyn saw the end of her girlhood approaching. A sensible wife, married to a man old enough to be her father. Tears formed.
“Oh leof, don’t cry. You are fortunate to have a family like yours. Other parents would have married you off many winters ago, but we were hoping…” the sentence trailed off.
“Very well father.” She bowed her head.
She told Saehild, unable to keep the disappointing news to herself. Her sister sympathised for once, forgetting her own concerns.
“There is nothing I can do,” Aelfwyn said. “They could have chosen a worse husband for me. Eadbald isn’t a bad man.”
“Just unbelievably boring. Never mind, perhaps you’ll meet someone at the feast.”
“As if Father would let me marry a Dane. Don’t be silly. I shall just enjoy the feast as my last taste of freedom and the end of my girlhood.”