The Host went across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford.
— The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 869 AD
This dream was the same as the others. She was soaring wingless on the wild air, and the wind made a night-black banner of her hair. Below her the sea shone like the rippled steel of her father’s sword, and the ships were as small as the black waterboatmen that scuttled in the shallow edges of a pond. She could not see what they contained, yet she knew that they carried doom and death.
A twist in the air, and she was swooping lower; land lay below her now. She knew what she would witness and tried to struggle away from the power drawing her inexorably on, to close her eyes, to turn aside, but she could not. The faces distorted with hatred or terror, the open screaming mouths, the blood dripping from spear or sword or axe: nothing had changed from the visions of horror that had ripped through her sleep last night and the night before.
With a vast effort she clawed her way through the suffocating shrouds of her nightmare and woke with a gasp of terror in her own bed, with the linen and feathers below her and the comforting blankets above, and her half-sister’s quiet, undisturbed breaths by her side.
Her heart was pounding like a smith’s hammer, and her shift was drenched in sweat. Mabyn lay rigid in the first glimmering light of daybreak, trying to believe that she was safe. Her family and her people were still alive. Her home and her village had not yet been burnt and ravaged by the heathen.
But the Great Army was on the march again. They had come to East Anglia four years ago, over the sea just like those tiny terrible ships in her dream. King Edmund, her father’s nephew, knowing his kingdom was too weak to oppose them, had given them money and horses, and they had gone away to Northumbria, killed its king, and set up a compliant ruler in his stead. The land of Mercia, ancient enemy of East Anglia, had been overrun and forced to make peace. And now the Danes were back in Thetford, a day’s hard ride away, and King Edmund was gathering an army to drive them from his land. The call had come six days ago, and Mabyn’s half-brother Oswald and all the thegns and companions had ridden away in answer to it, leaving only the serfs and the boys and the old men and her father, Edgar, with his lame leg and single hand, to protect them from slaughter or slavery.
The thin grey light, leaking through the gaps around the door, told her that it was dawn. Slowly and carefully Mabyn slid from the bed, pulled her gown on over her head, and tied the embroidered girdle round her waist. She glanced warily at her slumbering half-sister, for Leofrun asleep was so very preferable to Leofrun awake, but the other girl had not moved within her cocoon of golden hair. Mabyn pushed her feet into her shoes, slung her thick cloak around her shoulders, and crept out of the little chamber.
In the outer room of the bower, the serving women and slaves had already risen. Someone had opened one of the shutters, letting in icy air as well as light onto the empty beds and full shelves. Shivering, Mabyn lifted the latch on the door and slid outside.
So vivid had been her dream that she half expected to see the ground strewn with corpses and the buildings in flames. The Hall, with its cracked silvery oak patched with raw planks, and the shaggy thatch badly in need of replacing, was a shadow of its ancient glory, but the sight of it, blessedly familiar, filled her with relief. And there was Beonna, busy at the bread oven outside the kitchen hut, his round face glowing like a summer apple. Only moments before, she had seen that face transfixed with terror as a heathen axe crashed down on it, yet here he was, beaming at her, offering her a small, hot, crusty loaf. “You look cold, maid—here’s something to warm you up on a chilly morning!”
She smiled, thanked him, and tucked the little roll into her sleeve, where it sent a comforting glow all up her arm. Then she walked past the Hall towards the gate, where two half-grown boys, bristling with self-importance, stood on guard. She had known them for years, but still they blocked her path with their spears, the blades shiny and sharp with dedicated burnishing, and demanded to know where she was going.
“It’s none of your business,” Mabyn said, while her heart ached for them, so earnest and so determined to do their duty to the utmost. “You’re supposed to stop people coming in, not going out.”
“Lord Edgar told us not to let anyone past without checking them,” said Wynna, the elder of the two. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
“Well, I’m going to the church,” said Mabyn. “Is that enough for you?”
Reluctantly they stood aside and let her through. Wryly aware that they would not have dared to stop and question her sister, she walked out of the stockade and along the path that led through the village to the little wooden church, squat and grey amongst the trees from which it had been built. So early in the day she had thought it would be empty, but when she lifted the latch and opened the door there was Ealdstan, the priest, on his knees before the altar. At this moment Mabyn had even less desire to encounter him than she did her sister. She shut the door as quietly as she could and walked briskly away.
There were plenty of people about, and some of them had been slain, horribly, in her dream. Glad beyond measure to see them alive, she smiled back at them and returned their greetings. They still, of course, thought of her as one of themselves, even though her father had long since acknowledged her and brought her into his family.
A sharp gust of wind bustled past, and she pulled her parti-coloured cloak tight around her. It had been the first garment she had made for herself, since the thick rough fabric was easy to weave, and she had used undyed wool in brown and grey and white. Her pride in it had lasted only until her half-brother Oswald’s sneering mockery. “It’s just like you,” he had said, his mouth curling with contempt. “Neither one thing nor the other—not brown nor white, neither slave nor free, not English, not Welsh—you’re a nithing, brat, a slave-born nithing, and you’ve no place in this house or amongst our kin.”
He was tall and handsome, with the long bones and fair hair of the Wuffings, who had come from Sweden to rule East Anglia more than three centuries ago, and most people thought him a fine young prince who would bring great honour on his house. Mabyn knew him better. She had only been twelve then, not grown to her full height, and he had towered over her in the corner by the byre where he had trapped her. For her dead mother’s sake, though, she would not show her fear. She’d had no idea, then, what she had done to deserve such loathing, but the unfairness of it stung her. “Your father and mine thinks differently,” she had said, staring defiantly up at him. “He has welcomed me here, and he asked you to do the same.”
Oswald’s eyes were a cold pale blue, like a winter sky, and full of hate. “So he thinks, brat,” he hissed, and gripped her arm under the cloak. “I’ll teach you some respect for your betters.”
Mabyn gasped as he pinched a piece of her skin between ruthless fingers and twisted. She could not quite suppress a sob, and Oswald laughed triumphantly. “A coward as well as a nithing! Well, you won’t last long. When my beloved deluded father finds out what you’re really like, you’ll be back into thralldom before Yule.” He gave her flesh a final, vicious squeeze and walked away, laughing, while she rubbed her bruised arm and felt tears of futile rage filling her eyes.
But that had been five years ago, when she was still grieving for her mother, still astonished at the generosity of her father to his dead concubine’s slave-born daughter. Even before that he had given them both their freedom and set up her mother, the beautiful Welsh Guene, on a modest but comfortable estate in the green valley of the Gipping, not far from Ipswich.
There Mabyn had spent a happy and peaceful childhood, enlivened by Edgar’s fleeting visits, which were always accompanied by a loud, cheerful, and brilliant band of young thegns, sundry followers, and Dena, his gleeman. They would fill the little Hall so full that the smoke was squeezed into the topmost rafters, and consume all the mead and ale, and sing raucous songs about battles and warfare, and bang their drinking horns on the table while the serving girls, carrying Guene’s biggest jugs, struggled to keep pace with their heroic capacity. Mabyn, beside her father at the top table, would look on this splendid company with shining eyes and wait impatiently for the poet to begin his performance.
Dena was a small, pod-bellied man in late middle age, with a head as brown and smooth as an egg, fringed with lank grizzled hair. Beside his master’s golden glory, he looked humble and unimpressive, the sort of man, Mabyn thought, that you could meet in a crowd and immediately forget. And yet when he brought out his beautiful harp, with the strings that shivered like a maiden at his touch, he seemed to her to be master of a far greater power than her father possessed, commanding souls and hearts with a sweep of his hand. Under the spell of his voice and his music, dragons and monsters and heroes filled the thick air in the Hall, made flesh in Mabyn’s mind. Creatures flew, kings fought, death came with grim abundance from sword or axe or elf-shot. He told stories of the founder of Edgar’s family, Tyttla, who had sailed with his loyal companions over waves like mountains to land on the shores of East Anglia, and there claimed his kingdom in the rich flat country so different from the barren dunes and marshes he had left behind: and of his son Wuffa, the little wolf, and his descendants, Anna and Sigeberht and the great Raedwald, ruler of all Britain, their deeds and victories, betrayals and deaths. And as the harp was passed round amongst those who were skilled enough and sober enough to contribute a snatch of verse or song to the evening’s entertainment, she longed to add her mother’s stories, different and yet somehow familiar, celebrating the same wonders, the same virtues, the same delight in battle and bravery.
If only she had been born a man, Mabyn thought now, she would want to be a gleeman. But apart from Oswald, Edgar had produced only daughters with his thin, ill-tempered wife and his beautiful, black-haired concubine.
Oswald had not figured in her dream. When she remembered his casual cruelty, his delight in humiliating her, his secret taunts, she wished that he had. She knew that it was unchristian, but she hoped that at this moment he was facing a large, fierce, and well-armed heathen. The thought was almost enough to make her smile.
Her feet had taken her back through the village, bypassing the Hall in its ditch and stockade of stout staves, with thorns weaving between them, and on down the gentle slope to the river. Everyone came this way, to fish, to hunt, to cut reeds for thatch, or to use the ford that carried the road to Ipswich and the rest of East Anglia. Feet and hooves and wheels had worn deep ruts and potholes in the light soil, filled at irregular intervals with basketfuls of stones that the children picked from the fields. Nearer to the water, the ground became softer and wetter, and Mabyn trod swiftly but carefully, not wanting a shoe full of mud. It had rained yesterday, but this was a beautiful morning, with a high, pale sky the colour of a thrush’s egg and the bare branches of the trees lightly dusted with frost. Ice crusted round the edges of the shallower puddles, the silvery spears glittering against the thick yellow-brown earth. High above her a lark sang in celebration, and despite the dreadful foreboding of her dream, she tilted her head to look up, seeking the small speck of brown against the dizzying endless blue, and smiled with delight. Since her mother’s death, finding joy in small, perfect things had been a great comfort.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, in the great days of King Raedwald, when Rendlesham had been a place of renown all across the Seven Kingdoms, he had built his favourite palace here, with the famous temple containing both a Christian and a heathen altar. The sea tides had run swift and strong all the way up the River Deben, past the end of this path, and wave-riding ships had beached on the muddy sand to disgorge their fabulous wealth: silks and gold and garnets, amber and jet, spices and furs, and fragile, magical vessels made of glass. Some of it had gone into the huge burial mound with him, and some had been given to his friends and allies and companions: a great ring-giver was Raedwald. Some had then been handed down to his descendants. On the wall of the Hall, in pride of place behind the top table, hung an ancient tapestry so moth-eaten and smoke-blackened that the figures on it could hardly be seen; but everyone knew that it had been Raedwald’s, and that it depicted a scene from the familiar story of Weland the smith. Which scene Mabyn had never found out: everyone she asked had a different answer. And in any case, when Dena could give you any tale you wanted, in words and music that could conjure wild pictures in your head, who needed a tapestry full of someone else’s images?
The sand washing in from the fields had gradually silted up the river, and the reeds grew thick along its banks, making the flow more sluggish still and filling up the broad valley with mud and marsh. Ships now preferred the easy passage up the Orwell to the flourishing town at Ipswich a few miles to the south-west, rather than risking the hazardous channel past the growing sandbar at the Deben’s mouth. And although it was the chief royal palace of his ancestors, King Edmund came here seldom, preferring his richer, more comfortable estates near Bedricsworth or the spiritual haven with the monks at Elmham. The King was a pious man, very conscious of his duty to God as well as to his people. He had been persuaded to marry against his will, for the sake of producing an heir, for his uncle had not been fit to lead an army for many years and Edgar’s only son, Oswald, was then young and untried. The heir had duly been born and called Edric, but his mother had died not long after, and King Edmund did not venture to take another wife. The child was now fostered with Edgar’s family, but he showed few signs yet of the youthful promise that had caused his father to be chosen as King of East Anglia at the tender age of fifteen.
Mabyn was very fond of Edric, and the thought of him now made her smile again. Then, as if her mind had brought him to life like one of Dena’s heroes, she heard hasty footsteps coming up behind her and a hoarse boy’s voice: “Mabyn! Mabyn, wait for me!”
She stopped and turned. Edric was running down the path with his usual awkward gait, arms flapping wildly. Froda, the unfortunate thegn whom Edgar had assigned to teach the boy how to handle weapons, was wont to grumble into his mead that he’d never had the bad luck to come across such a clumsy pupil, and he had the bruises and wounds to prove it. So did Edric: he tripped over his spear, cut himself on his sword’s edge, and banged his knees with his shield—and his lack of prowess caused him considerable anguish. He had once confided in Mabyn, “I’m just not meant to fight! Oswald says I’d be more of a danger to my own companions than to the enemy, and he’s right.”
“No, he isn’t,” Mabyn had said, wondering why her half-brother seemed unable to be pleasant to anyone, even a ten-year-old boy. Edric, who possessed an insight far beyond his years, had supplied the answer in his next breath. “He says I wouldn’t be fit to lead an army into battle, and that he should be my father’s true heir. He says Uncle Edgar should have been chosen to be King, but they chose my father instead because he—your father, I mean—had just been wounded by the Danes and wasn’t expected to live.”
“Don’t listen to Oswald. You know what he’s like.”
“Yes,” Edric had said fervently. “And you do too. But hardly anyone else does.”
That was true enough. Oswald could be very pleasant, when it was in his own interests, and he was generous and charming to his companions, skilled in arms and full of high courage; like all bullies he directed his malice only at those unable to retaliate. His lovely sister Leofrun was cast in the same mould, and it seemed that only those whose thoughts did not count—Mabyn, Edric, and the thralls and servants of the household—knew the truth.
Hild did too, of course. But Hild, Edgar’s eldest daughter, who had deflected the worst of Oswald’s and Leofrun’s ill-will, had been married to a Wessex nobleman two years previously, and both Mabyn and Edric missed her kindness sorely.
“Wait for me!” Edric called again now, waving at her. “Mabyn, wait for me!”
“I am waiting,” she said with a smile. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” said Edric in surprise. “I just want to walk with you, that’s all. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.” It was true, she thought: her feet had moved of their own accord while her mind was busy elsewhere. “Down along the river, perhaps.”
“Can I walk with you?”
“Of course you can—though don’t you have anything better to do?”
“I suppose I have.” Edric grimaced. “Sword practice with Froda, probably. Beonna gave me a roll; would you like some of it?” He took it out of his sleeve, and in response Mabyn brought hers out too. They grinned at each other and strolled on in a companionable silence, both munching on the warm, yeasty bread.
The path reached the river’s edge. The reeds had been cut down here, both to patch the roof of the Hall and the other buildings and to help the flow of the tide. The ford crossed unseen beneath the rough brown water, and just below it Dudda, up to his thighs in the Deben, was checking his fish traps. He waved a hand in acknowledgement, and Mabyn waved back, guiltily aware that she should likewise be busy. Leisurely moments of freedom were frowned upon in her crowded life: she ought to be sewing, or weaving, or spinning, or directing the servants, or doing any one of a score of household tasks. There was no room for idleness in her days, and especially not now, when there was so much to do and so many men away, and the heathen threatening the land.
“Do you think the Army will come here?” Edric asked her anxiously, as they began to walk down the path along the riverbank.
“They’ll never defeat your father,” said Mabyn, with a stout certainty that she did not feel in the least: for the Danish Army was so numerous and so ferocious that no kingdom in England had yet managed to withstand them.
“And he’s the best warrior in all England,” the boy said, but she could tell from his voice that he was bolstering his confidence too. “He and his men will soon kick them out of our land.”
“And into the sea—or, even better, back to plague the Mercians!”
Mercia was their ancestral enemy, and only forty years previously it had conquered the East Anglians and ruled them for some time, until King Athelstan, Edgar’s father, had won back his domains. The heathen Army was the scourge of all Christians, but if any kingdom were to be ravaged by them, the people in East Anglia would prefer it to be Mercia.
Edric laughed at the idea, and they walked on for a while in thoughtful silence. The path had become narrow and pockmarked with puddles, so they had to step carefully, in single file. On their left lay a high hedge of hawthorn and beyond it a broad sweep of pasture sloping back up towards the church, on which a score of cattle grazed. On their right the tide was on the ebb, exposing smooth swathes of grey mud interspersed with patches of sea grass and reeds. Clumps of rushes began to crowd the edge of the river, pushing out into the stream and often hiding their view of the further bank. This was the way the huntsman came, when he was stalking the wildfowl that flocked here during the winter months. It was the chief reason that Edgar preferred to come to Rendlesham at this time of year: even though, with only one hand, he could no longer use a bow, he enjoyed flying his hawks and watching the breathtaking accuracy of his thegns and huntsmen as they shot geese, ducks, and swans out of the sky.
Mindful of the need to avoid disturbing the birds, Mabyn and Edric moved slowly and silently between thorn and water. There was a place a little further along where the bank curved and made a small patch of grass: here she stopped, spread her cloak in a shaft of sunlight, and sat down with the boy beside her. They had a good view of the river and the flocks of busy birds; as they watched a heron stepped delicately in the diminishing shallows, intent on the water, its beak poised to stab.
I grew up in Suffolk, a few miles as the crow flies from Rendlesham, where The Paths of Exile opens, and I’ve always been fascinated by the lost kingdom of East Anglia, destroyed by Viking raiders, and its wealth and culture, displayed in the treasure found at Sutton Hoo, not far away down the River Deben. Later I also became interested in the reign of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and resolved to write a novel which linked the two. It took many years of in-depth work and research, using historical sources, translations of poetry and prose, and archaeology, before I felt ready to begin. I was determined to give a real flavour of the daily life of the people I wrote about, as well as their dangers and triumphs, and above all I wanted my heroine to be a vessel for the wonderful poems and stories of the Anglo-Saxons—for, although she can neither read nor write, she has learned them all by heart, and it becomes her mission to have them written down so that they will not be lost for ever.
So this isn’t another tale of warriors and battles. The momentous events of those years are seen through the eyes of a woman, a woman who, though slave-born and often treated with contempt, proves braver, more resourceful, and more determined than most fighting men. With her contemptuous half-sister Leofrun and her young cousin Edric, Mabyn flees from Viking attack. After a long and perilous journey by sea and by land, and a momentous encounter which will change all their lives, she eventually finds refuge with her other, kinder sister, Hild, in Wessex. She carries in her head the poem which is one of the greatest artistic achievements of her people, and with her kinsman King Alfred’s support, she finds a monk willing to transcribe Beowulf. Alfred provides husbands for both girls (though Leofrun’s is not to her liking) and takes Edric under his wing, but it is not long before the Vikings return to Wessex with one aim—to conquer the last remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Then Mabyn and her family must flee with the king and a tattered remnant of loyal followers into the marshes of Somerset, while the Vikings overrun Wessex and all seems lost. They will face treachery and danger and be forced to make impossible choices, as Alfred bids to defeat the Vikings in one last desperate battle, to win back his kingdom or die in the attempt.
Pamela Belle is the author of thirteen published novels, mostly historical but also including two set in modern Wiltshire, and a fantasy trilogy. After teaching and raising two sons, she now live in Devizes in Wiltshire, England, and works part-time in a library while continuing her writing.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019