Excerpt from To Be A Queen
Outside the walls of occupied Derby, AD917
Æthelflæd’s forces are determined to take back control of a strategic Mercian town
She slept, but only in short bursts. She would turn, and wake, remember that Wulfnoth stood guard outside her tent and lie down on her right side to drift off for a while, only to wriggle onto her left and wake up again. The noise from the walls was ever present, like bird song. For weeks she had lived with the shouting, hammering, scraping and banging. Shouts to muster were common-place, as were the yelled curses in the foreign tongue from within the walls. As with the dawn chorus, it would wake her once in a while, she would acknowledge it for what it was, and sleep on again through the disturbance. She had lain on top of the bed, too hot to sink under the covers, and now, having slept for a while, she woke up feeling chilly. Grabbing at a blanket, she settled down again, not yet refreshed enough to consider rising. She lay down and closed her eyes once more. Then it came to her. There was no battle noise, no sound of machinery. Trundling cart wheels, digging spades and thudding boulders; all had stopped moving.
She sat up, pulled on her boots and left the tent. Wulfnoth had disappeared. She was not concerned; he would not have left her unless he knew it was safe to do so. With a growing sense of hope, she walked through a camp which was now near deserted. Dear God, they must have breached the walls, or the gates, or both. Coming to the edge of the encampment she saw the gates of the town hanging open, one almost off its great hinges. Beyond the open gateway, the Danes, surrendered and surrounded, had been herded together. A Mercian banner fluttered from the watchtower. A thegn on the tower pointed his sword at her and began a victory chant. It was taken up by those below, who all joined in, shouting their triumph in the name of their lady. But Æthelflæd was looking at Frith, who walked towards her with his sword still in his hand, hanging low, dragging. He had blood on his face and his long hair was matted. He had his mail-coat on and she gave thanks for his innate tendency to be sensible at such times. But he walked like a wounded man, though she could see that he was whole.
He bowed on one knee before her. “Lady, Derby is yours.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me. Who do we mourn?”
His blond brows came together to form a single line above his eyes. Beneath those blue-grey eyes, dark shadows of exhaustion robbed him of his beauty. Careworn, fatigued, speaking carefully through a cut lip, he could give her no more than a list of names. “Helmstan, Ælfric, Eadwine, Wulfwine.” The rest of her personal guard. “Eadric.”
She opened her mouth but stood, gaping. What did she think to say? No? You are wrong? I misheard you? Of course he was not wrong; he would not break his own heart with lies.
He struggled to his feet and she squeezed his arm. Nodding towards the inner courtyard she said, “Do what needs to be done here. I will speak to Elfwen.”
She found her daughter in her tent. She wished that she could be like Frith, and give Elfwen a moment more of the world when it was right, before she plunged her into a deep lake where there was no light, only despair. But she knew that her face told Elfwen all that she needed to know. “Daughter, the town is ours. But many men died in the taking of it. Among them was Eadric.”
Elfwen gasped but shook her head, believing as her mother had not, that the news was false. “No, that cannot be.” But as she spoke, the words, having hit her ears as lies, must have come into her mind as truth, and she fell face down onto her bed and wept.
Æthelflæd stood still and let her cry out the initial pain, knowing that there would be more, for days, weeks, mayhap even months to come.
When the first waves had left her body and the sobbing subsided, Elfwen sat up.
“How can you stand there like that? Do you not care?”
Æthelflæd flinched. She thinks I do not care because I do not weep. Once, many years ago, I would have thought the same thing. Oh, Dear Lord, I have loved and lost so often that I have forgot what the first time feels like. She took a step forward.
Elfwen put out her hand. “No. Do not come near me. You are heartless.”
Æthelflæd lifted her chin and let her head fall back. Her mouth opened and a strange animal cry came forth from her. It rose from within her core, and shocked her with its force. She looked her daughter in the eye and said, “Oh God, if I had opened my heart upon every death and let out the part of me that died with them, it would not have the strength left to carry on beating.”
She left Elfwen alone with her tears. The girl would have to learn the hard way. There was no other.
This scene occurs towards the end of the novel. Æthelflæd is exhausted, having just come from campaign in Wales. No longer a young woman, she has endured years of fighting and worry about the Viking threat and what it means to her homeland and family. Long absences from home have affected her relationship with Elfwen, and shaped the girl’s character. Æthelflæd knows that she is repeating history – her father was largely absent from her own life – but she also understands that she must continue to put duty beyond all other considerations.
Leaders, and especially women leaders, must harden their hearts, and leave no room there for sentiment. She has learned the hard way, through loss, and the wisdom gleaned from heartache. Is the accusation of heartlessness justified? Æthelflæd would understand the modern phrase “Fake it until you make it” because this is exactly what she has had to do. Now, she is frightened; that if she acknowledges her emotions she will be swamped, engulfed.
Ethelred, her husband, once said to her that he would only have time to rest once he was dead. In a similar way, she cannot stop to entertain her emotions until the job is done. She sees the damage left in its wake, but she must carry on, observing the fallout, but unable to divert from her task.
Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” concludes next week with a cover crush for Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen.
About the author …
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.
Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.
She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.
Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066: Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.
You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.
Related post: “Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians“
Stay tuned for my review of Alvar the Kingmaker.