“Between Two Worlds” by Annie Whitehead
My name is Annie; a few years ago, on my travels as a writer, I discovered an Anglo-Saxon lady. This lady really existed, but survived only as a footnote in history, and now I’m going to visit her.
Every morning after my kids had gone off to school on the bus, I would walk along a green lane, which took me between fields. At the end of the lane there is a cluster of dwellings, and, just out of sight, an old farm. Midway along the path, the way is darkened by trees and it was at this point on my walks that I sensed a little of what some folk describe as a ‘thin place’ where the old and new worlds collide. This bucolic and slightly ethereal location became the basis for my fictional village of Ashleigh, the home of Káta, wife of Helmstan, and secretly loved by Alvar the Kingmaker, earldorman of Mercia.
Today I am stepping through, metaphorically, into that other world, back to the year of AD963. I want to talk to Káta, and I have a message for her.
I know a little about her daily chores and I think I know where to find her. She will be in the bake-house, supervising the kneading of dough for the daily loaves, or she might be in the weaving-shed, working one side of the big loom. Ashleigh means ‘the clearing in the ash grove,’ and the village is surrounded on most sides by trees. Most people live in, or near, the enclosure but some live out in the woods. The houses are all made of timber, with thatched roofs, but inside I am surprised to see that the main hall has lime-washed walls, and is insulated with embroidered hangings.
Káta, wiping her hands free from flour, comes in from the bake-house, and gestures for drinks to be brought. She obviously doesn’t stand on ceremony, having come straight from working, but she thinks I don’t hear her add, “And bring the best cups.”
She glances round, and I can see from the way her gaze sweeps from corner to corner that she is assessing whether her house is ‘presentable.’ This lady is very house-proud.
She bids me sit down, and she stares at my feet. More precisely, at my boots. I always wear thick-soled walking boots when I come down the lane. She puts out a hand as if to touch them, and I am sorry that they are so muddy. She withdraws her hand. I look down at her leather, soft-soled shoes and I realise why she is so taken with mine.
“How often do you need new shoes?” she asks. “Mine do not last long, especially not at this time of year.”
I smile. How we take these things for granted in our modern world; my shoes will last me for years, whereas hers will wear through incredibly quickly. Being a shoemaker must be a lucrative job in the tenth-century!
When we have finished our drinks (she has given me wine; it’s too sweet, and I don’t drink in the middle of the day, but I don’t wish to offend) she will take me on a tour. November was blood-month, the time when the animals grown for food are slaughtered, and much of their summer produce has been preserved for the winter. Traditionally, they hang cheeses from the rafters – a hazard for tall people! She will need to keep a check on her personal store of dried herbs and plants, which are used for medicine.
“My duties are many. As lady, I must look after the folk who dwell on our land. I must nurse them when they are ill, bring food to those who are too elderly to fetch their own…”
“Like meals on wheels,” I say.
She shakes her head. Not in rebuttal, but in confusion.
In winter, they do not do much sewing, for daylight hours are short, but she assures me that they do mend their linens. She is proud of her beeswax candles – no smelly tallow for this lady!
Other things are purchased, such as crockery, and combs carved from antler.
“I would dearly love to ride to Chester to buy some new cups,” she says. I was right when I thought that she was house-proud.
She twirls her cup in her hands, but I notice she keeps her right hand hidden from view.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I won’t tell anyone about that.” (Although readers of the book are sure to find out its significance.)
She fiddles with a brooch. It is a present, she says, from her husband. It is enamelled, and she treasures it because it was a present from London, a place where she has never been.
“I have a message for you,” I tell her. Her forehead wrinkles and I add, “It is from Alaska.”
“Who is Alaska?” She holds out her hand, as if for a letter.
“Not a who. A where. Alaska is a place, across the sea. Lisl lives there. It’s a long way from here. Even the boat journey would take months.”
She shrinks down in her chair. “The longest journey I ever took was from my father’s house to this one. Have you been to this … Alaska?”
I shake my head. “No, but I would love to go one day.”
“Then you have met someone who has been there?”
I smile again. How to explain? In her world, only the written page, or word of mouth, can convey information.
Instead, I tell her, “Lisl says that in Alaska many of the folk there grow their own little patches of garden, and the homesteaders sell lots of their produce. Some of the villages there are small and really isolated and some don’t have proper roads into them.”
Káta barely raises an eyebrow. “So things are not so different in Alaska.”
“The weather is a little different. Lisl says there’s a chance you might run into a stray bear.”
Now she is horrified. “I’ve seen pictures of such things. Thank goodness we do not have bears here.”
I am rather glad that we no longer have wolves in this country, but I keep silent.
We walk past the wooden gate-house, no more than a viewing platform, really, and out onto a lane that is considerably busier in these times than it is in mine. Folk all know each other by name, and occupation, and there is much more of a sense of community than in the rural England in which I now live.
Káta says, “Is it like that in Alaska?”
I shrug and say, “I don’t know. I’ll ask…”
Click here to see my review for the multiple award-winning Alvar the Kingmaker.
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 been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.
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 recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, Discovering Diamonds Special Ward and Chill with a Book Readers’ Award.
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.