The overexcited maidservant burst into Aelswyn’s chambers, desperate to tell her what she had overheard from the guards in the kitchen. The Duke’s daughter lifted her gaze from her work, a shirt she was embroidering with frozen fingers, seated at the window. She glowered at the girl, Edith. At six and ten years of age, she should know how to behave.
She had skills, though: she could spin and weave, make and embroider clothing, as her moss green dress could testify. But she was to be married soon, and her future husband might not be as lenient as her mistress with her childish deportment. It could earn her many beatings.
Edith flustered under Aelswyn’s glare and bowed, suddenly remembering her manners. “Forgive me, my Lady, I just heard the most incredible tidings. The Vikings, well one Viking, he was here, and he wanted your hand, and your father, he killed him!" she said without taking her breath.
Aelswyn sighed and asked her to calm down. Her servant was not making sense.
“Edith, who was that Viking, do you know what he was doing here?”
“I think they said he was a messenger, that’s it, from Sven something, he bore a white flag.”
“And what was the message about?”
“He wanted your hand in marriage, for his chief, and your father refused.”
Aelswyn scoffed. Of course, her father had been waiting for a much better suitor: the second son of the King, who was just coming of age. He was younger than her, but their union would secure the land for the King, and increase the Duke’s closeness to power. Her dowry had already been set, and the contract would be signed shortly.
“Is that why my father had him killed?”
“Nay, he ordered him away, and then the man declared war and insulted him. He must have lost his mind!”
“So the guards got rid of him?”
“Aye, and beheaded him, here, they are mounting his head on the stake now!”
She pointed at the opening and Aelswyn’s eyes followed her direction. A male head, still dripping blood, was being placed over the wall straight in front of her room. She would have a great view of the crows eating those glazed blue orbs, pulling on that long red hair, and picking at those dead smiling lips. Disgusting!
Then it struck her: why was the man smiling? Surely dying was not a cause for merriment?
“A messenger you said? With a white flag? Not a negotiator?”
Edith shrugged, losing interest. “That’s what they said my Lady.”
A chill ran down Aelswyn’s spine. How could her father not see the trap? Messengers with a white flag were innocent vessels for someone else’s words, and, therefore, harming them was deemed a vile act. This Viking chief was a cunning man, using the Duke’s ill temper to his advantage. Her father would receive no support from his allies when the longships[i] appeared. He just gave the first blow.
She looked around her, hoping that the fort would hold, come the day. She grabbed her cloak, intending to do the only thing in her power: pray.
Lying low in the soaked grass on top of the hill, the scout grinned at the gory sight. It was better than expected; Sven would be pleased. Even his wildest dreams, his chief wouldn’t have hoped for such a public display.
The scout crawled back, and ran as soon as he thought he was out of view. His fellowmen were waiting in the nearby forest, and it took him only a few minutes to join them. The chief was seated against a tree, a blanket partly shielding him from the pouring water.
“They killed him Sven!” he panted. “They showed off his head!”
Sven laughed at the thought. These proud Saxons were so easy to manipulate! It must be their Christian faith. They used to be worthy warriors when they were pagans.
He patted the shoulder of his second in command.
“Your brother did well, Olaf. He redeemed himself by dying like a real warrior. He brought honor to your family. I will make sure his courage will not be forgotten.”
Olaf squared his broad shoulders and lifted his chin proudly: “I claim the right to light the pyre at his funeral, as my privilege. May the Valkyries[ii] guide him to Valhalla[iii]!
Sven nodded and motioned his men closer: “Everything is going according to plan. Get ready to attack at dusk. You know what to do."
[i]Viking battle ships.
[ii]Warrior maidens guiding the worthy warriors’ souls to Valhalla.
[iii]Norse paradise for warriors.