Hearts, Home, and a Precious Stone
East Anglia – 616
She stared up at him. Her hands were wet from clutching the washing and for a moment she was only aware of the drip trickling through her fingers and the ragged breathing sounds. His, not hers. For it seemed like she had been holding her breath since he pulled up in front of her, his boots half-sinking as the sucking mud tried to claim them.
He had no war-gear, nor scars on his face, but he didn’t seem to be a trader either. His fingers were clenched and he was pumping his fist.
Why was he anxious? She was no threat. He wouldn’t know that she was a Mercian princess married to a Northumbrian prince, a guest here and paying her way by doing her share of the chores.
All he would see was a woman washing clothes in the estuary where traders came and went and the court of King Redwald welcomed strangers.
A shout rose from where the boats bobbed in gentle resistance against their moorings. The sails that usually billowed had been caught and tied; they looked naked, Carinna always thought, when they were thus subdued. A man came running along the bank, a rich man, she thought, for he had a belly which spoke of plentiful rations, and there were no shiny patches on his breeches. He shouted as he ran, spittle flecking across his beard as he voiced his anger.
“Come back you little shit! Thief! I’ll flay your skin from your back, slave-boy!
The youth glanced at his pursuer, and took two squelching steps towards Carinna. She woke from her torpor, dropped the washing, and stood up. The young man shrugged, as if deciding that he had nothing to lose, and planted a kiss on her lips. As he did so, he pressed something into her hand. He ran off, the older man in noisy pursuit. Carinna watched them go, their feet making boot-prints which instantly vanished as they filled back up with water.
She caught the shouts as they carried on the wind.
“Give it back! Without it, I’ll never get home. And neither will you!”
“No, I won’t, but I’ll be free!”
The young man had not been nervously pumping his fingers; he’d been holding something. Now that object was in her hand. It was cold, hard, like a pebble. Was this what he had stolen? Why would this mean that they couldn’t go home?
Carinna knew the pain of that, what it felt like to be far from home. She glanced down at the object in her hand.
It was not a pebble, but a clear stone. When she held it up to look more closely, she could see right through it. It glittered when the sun’s rays caught it.
Carinna’s father was the King of Mercia. Her husband would one day be a king; he was sure of it, and so, then, she must believe it. But she was no more at liberty than this boy. Let him run, let him be free.
“Lady?” Aylsa had come to fetch Carinna to the hall. “You seem far away?”
I am far away, thought Carinna. Far from my homeland, at any rate. Just like that young man. She opened her fist again and looked at the shiny object.
Aylsa’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, that is so pretty!”
“Have it.” She didn’t want it. Whenever she looked at it, it would remind her of pebbles washed from lands far away to end up on distant shores.
The harvest was in and the East Anglians would not go hungry over the winter. Many of the women would, however, be spending those dark cold months on their own, newly widowed or bereaved. King Redwald’s army was huge, but there would inevitably be casualties. Aylsa knew that Armund could be one of them.
Last night they had crept from the feast. Away from the braziers keeping the enclosed yard lit and safe, there were dark corners where couples could go. This morning she could not get close for more than a moment. The men were gathering outside the hall, more were outside the gates, and she had to stick her elbows out to barge through the throng of warriors, their women, and skittering children.
In the dark night his flesh had burned upon hers, his kisses soft, breath warming her body in mists as he spoke gentle words of love.
This morning only a brief caress was possible, and in that moment, she took the deepest inhalation, stealing the scent of his skin, hoping it would see her through the winter, holding her cheek against the pulsing vein in his neck, praying the goddess would keep it beating, and that he would not, in a few days, be lying cold on the distant battleground. Down from her tiptoes, and preparing to let go, she said, “Take this. May it bring you safe through the fight.”
Last night he had loved her, today…Was it bravery in cold light, or had the promises in the dark been whispers on the wind, to carry, clear at first, but then vanish?
He took the transparent stone from her, and his brows drew together. For a moment it seemed he might refuse, but he smiled, and said, “If it brings you peace, I will take it.”
Northumbria - 634
He was home. And he was King. Oswald had pursued and cornered his enemy, and slain him with no more thought than if he’d despatched a diseased hound. Now was the time to assess the damage to his army, to give orders for Christian burial, and send the wounded to the monks for care.
Where the fighting had been most intense, the ground was slimy. The grass had been churned to mud with the pushing of the shield wall, and now that mud was wet with blood. On his back, eyes open to the sky, a young thegn lay, one leg twisted underneath his body, arms spread as if in supplication, one fist closed. A wound split his head from temple to neck. The blood had ceased to pump, and the open gash was a garish blend of pink flesh and white bone.
Oswald’s steward, Manfrid, came to stand beside his lord. “Beric, son of Armund. A good man.”
“I don’t recall…”
“You did not know him, Lord. His father fought with your uncle’s hearth-troop and came north from East Anglia with King Redwald’s army. He settled here, and his son grew up thinking himself Northumbrian. He fought well for you this day.”
Oswald was humbled. So many good men had fought and died for him. “What was he holding; perhaps his foe’s hair?”
Manfrid uncurled the youth’s fingers to reveal a blood-smeared stone. “It’s naught, Lord.”
“Let me see?”
The stone, once wiped, revealed itself to be clear, like glass, yet more transparent. A talisman? If so, it had served the boy ill. God’s purpose was obviously greater.
“I heard tell,” said Manfrid, “That his father carried a stone which he said had brought him freedom because he lived through all his battles. He must have passed it to his son.”
“Don’t bury him with this. It’s a pagan thing.”
Oswald thought he might throw the stone away. But Manfrid began talking to him, they spoke of arrangements, and he found himself turning the stone over and over in his palm.
Mercia - 909
The Lady Æthelflæd looked across the gaming board table at Earl Alhelm. He marvelled that she and he were sitting together still, when the stories of their lives were all but written. Alhelm returned her wry smile as the monks walked solemnly across the hall. The moving of Saint Oswald’s bones had been both an expedient and a shrewd move, ensuring their safety, and the Lady’s reputation as protector of people, and of faith.
Brother Cenred came forward and bowed low. “My lady, we have translated the bones but there is something else. I am not sure…” He handed her a carved box.
She took the reliquary from him. “Should this not be in the minster also?” She lifted the lid and said, “Ah, I understand. What is this?” The leather pouch had a drawstring closure, and she loosened it. Upturning the pouch, she revealed not a relic, but a clear, shiny stone.
Alhelm let out a low, almost inaudible whistle. “A pretty thing, indeed.”
The monk cleared his throat. “It has been in Bardney Abbey since King Oswald’s remains were placed there, so the tale is told. Tradition holds that the saint kept it by his side from the moment of his triumph in battle, mayhap in the next too, when he was slain. But the abbot denounced it as pagan, and would not have it buried with the bones.”
The Lady seemed lost among her thoughts, stroking the stone with her thumb. She looked up at Alhelm and gave a little shake of her head. She pushed the stone towards him and said, “You have served me faithfully.”
“Not always in the way you wished.”
She shrugged. “Even so, take it.” Her smile was not broad, yet still it reached her eyes.
Elvira tried to slide into the shadows behind the wooden pillar, but he’d seen her, watching him. Watching them. Her jealousy would eat her soul, he thought.
Caught out, she snatched the stone from his grasp. “The Lady gave you this?” Her lips pinched shut, drawn together in anger, but also, perhaps, to guard against further pain.
He would never admire her more than in the moment she forced light to shine from her eyes and, swallowing all hurt, said, “She must have meant for me to have it. What a gift. I’ll keep it safe; perhaps one day our sons or daughters may pass it to theirs.”
Cheshire - 980
King Edward had been buried with full honours. Uncle Alvar had seen to that. The new king was crowned, Siferth’s baby was gurgling in his crib, and all was right with the world. That’s what he’d thought this morning.
Now, with approaching dark, Siferth was still waiting. How far inland had the Vikings come after they landed at Chester?
At dusk, he had his answer.
Beotric came running, smelling of smoke even though he’d been away all day and nowhere near a hearth. Panting, all he could say was, “They’re coming.”
Inside, Eadyth was standing over the cradle. She turned, and he saw that she knew.
“I’ll fight.” His words rang hollow. Why would they not? There was no substance to them. He had no men, beyond Beotric. He could not protect his family.
She stepped forward, reaching for his hand. Lifting it to her breast and closing her other hand around it, she said, “It was not your fault. You did an honourable thing, and no man could have foreseen what would happen. Your uncle thought he did right by having you hide out here, living quietly.”
He stared over her head to the crib. She followed his gaze. “Is your mother’s little boat still moored on the river?”
“Yes, but it’s not big enough for the open sea. And I don’t know how to…”
She released his hand and went to the corner of the room, opening a wooden chest. Showing him the shiny stone she said, “Alvar had this from his mother. He gave it to yours and she gave it to me. We’ll use it to pay a boatman.”
Guthred’s earliest memories were of leaning against his father’s chest, feeling the beating rise and fall, listening to Father’s tales of how he’d settled in Cheshire. Guthred was proud of his Danish heritage, and thought that was why he was drawn to making a living as a boatman. When this young couple came to him, desperate, and tried to pay him, he couldn’t believe their luck.
Holding the stone to the cloudy sky, nevertheless he watched as the sun’s rays poured through it and warmed his hand. He said to his female passenger, “How came you by this?”
“It was passed down by my husband’s kin. My mother-by-law told me the legend; that it would bring freedom to all who carried it, but there would always be a price to pay.”
Guthred nodded. “Aye, true, if it’s kept too long on land. ’Tis what my kinfolk call a Sunstone. With this, I can guide this boat across the wider sea, as far as you wish me to take you.”
The swell lifted the boat up and down and the birds swooped low before darting away, screeching. The wind slapped salty water against her cheeks, and Eadyth hugged the baby close to her breast.
Siferth said, “We will never get home now.”
“No,” she said, “but we’ll be free.”
Notes: Carinna, Oswald, Manfrid, Æthelflæd, Alhelm, Elvira, Siferth & Eadyth appear in my novels, and their circumstances here relate to certain events in the books. Of course, the Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t have known about diamonds, and we don’t know for sure when the ‘Vikings’ began using sunstones for navigation either, but fiction is a wonderful device for dealing with uncertainties!
© Annie Whitehead
About Annie Whitehead
Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
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