Warrior Princess

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I remember the moment I first saw him, in the Great Hall of Morden Castle – a tall, striking figure dressed in the black habit of the Benedictines, head slightly bowed, standing calmly before my father’s throne. It was the way he held himself – straight backed, square shouldered – not a hint of nervousness, as the gossip of the court swirled around him.

“Too young to be a monk,” they whispered.

“Must be a novice.”

“How old is he?”

“His hair is untonsured.”

“From the Abbey at Chertsey, apparently.”

“And he scared off a longship?”

“I heard it was five.”

I sat to my father’s left side, aloof and impassive as the spectacle was prepared. How I despised the court and its participants – the pompous loudmouths who jostled for position – the spineless snitches who’d do anything to get ahead. They were the reason the kingdom was so imperilled – long on talk, little on action – a council paralysed by indecision.

The prisoners were being brought in now – the long-haired Vikings, stripped of their armour, hands tied tightly behind their backs. There must have been forty or more, each one shoved roughly to his knees on the cold stone floor. The murmuring of the crowd was getting louder, eyes wide, fingers pointing, as the captives slumped wretched in defeat. This was a rare victory for the Kingdom of Surrey – unprecedented – few had seen the raiders humbled in this way. The castle jail would be full tonight.

My gaze rested again on the tall figure in the black habit. He looked a little older than me, but still in his early twenties. There was no denying he was attractive – his jet-black hair cascaded over his forehead in thick curls, half-concealing his deep blue eyes.

There was something mysterious about him – compelling even. My heart beat a fraction faster.

The young man glanced up, his eyes meeting mine for a split second. Hurriedly I looked away, my cheeks reddening – he’d caught me watching him. I cursed my self-consciousness – why on earth should I feel embarrassed? A royal princess could look at whomsoever she chose – especially one so humble as him. Why should he be any different?

The heavy oak doors at the far end of the hall clanged shut, rescuing me from my awkwardness. A hush descended as Sigweard, Thane of Chertsey, strode forwards, swaggering towards my father’s throne. His son Sigbehrt followed behind, smirking at the courtiers on either side. I stared forwards disinterestedly, trying to avoid his eyes.

“Lord Sigweard, you bring us report?” King Frithwald asked in a clear, authoritative tone.

“Your majesty,” came the reply, his voice booming around the hall. “I beg leave to present news of a great victory…” The showman bowed low, pausing for dramatic effect. “The capture of five Viking longships.”

A gasp went up from the obsequious courtiers as the thane swept his arm to indicate the captives.

“We bring the prisoners to receive your justice,” he proclaimed. He gave another low, theatrical bow. Sigweard always revelled in the spotlight.

“Then tell how you accomplished this heroic feat,” commanded the king.

“Your majesty,” the thane continued, “my men were patrolling the banks of the Great River, when we espied in midstream the longships in great distress. Two small boats had been set on fire and were drifting in the wind towards them.

“The crews were panicking. They tried to row away from the flames, but the longships foundered on the shoals and my men waded out to them easily. We arrested them all.”

Another sweep of his arm to indicate the wretched Vikings.

“And the fireboats?” my father asked, letting a note of excitement colour his voice. “Who set them against the raiders?”

“Your Majesty, that was me,” said the tall young man, his voice bold and clear.

Astonished gasps sounded around the court as all heads turned to the tall figure in the habit. Who would dare to speak uninvited before the king? A stern rebuke would surely follow – the novice might even be expelled from the court. The thane’s brow knotted in frustration.

“Step forward. Tell us your name!” King Frithwald commanded, ignoring the breach of protocol.

“I am Cedric,” the young man began, “novice of the Abbey of Chertsey, your majesty. My lord abbot sends his most loyal greeting.”

He spoke calmly and clearly, completely oblivious to the stunned reaction of the court. Sigweard looked on, more than a little peeved, his thunder stolen by the newcomer.

“Then pray tell us, Cedric of Chertsey – how did you set these boats of fire on our foe?”

“Your majesty, I was making my way across the town bridge, the night before last,” Cedric began. “I looked out across the Great River and saw a longship coming upstream. But the wind and the current were against it and the oarsmen were struggling.”

“Your majesty…” Sigweard interrupted, trying to regain my father’s attention.

My father held up his hand to silence him. The thane shrank back, his face a picture of injured pride.

“Indeed,” said ankara iri göğüsleri olan escortlar the king thoughtfully, turning back to Cedric, “there was a full moon that night and from Chertsey Bridge one can see a long way down the river.”

There was a pause. The courtiers waited with bated breath.

“Pray, continue,” nodded my father.

“I saw two rowing boats filled with rags – the type the local fishermen use. They were tied beneath the arches. I climbed down and set the rags aflame with the oil from my lamp,” said Cedric. “Then I cut the moorings and let the current take the boats towards the longship.”

My eyes darted across to Sigbehrt. I’d expected him to be purple with envy as Cedric’s tale of heroism unfolded. But no, he was looking up at the hammer-beam roof of the hall, that same smirk still written broad across his face. A man, only a few years his junior, was stealing the limelight – surely he was hating every moment?

“The oarsmen panicked,” continued Cedric. “And a gust of wind took hold of the longship and pushed it to the bank.”

“And your men were waiting there?” asked my father, turning away from the Benedictine and directing his question to Sigweard.

A wave of relief passed across the thane’s face. He was back in control.

“Yes, your majesty – a cohort of my finest men had been tracking the longships from Kingston. We were ready to confront the Vikings when they came ashore. They crumbled when they saw the strength of our force.”

“And these are the prisoners from the longships?”

“From the first longship, your majesty,” Sigweard bowed low – an unnecessary gesture. “We could not bring all five crews, for they number almost two hundred. The others languish in Chertsey Jail and await your pleasure.”

My father placed his hand on his beard and stroked it thoughtfully, knotting his brow as he contemplated the accounts. He rose to his feet.

“Guards!” he called. “Take the prisoners to our dungeons!”

Dozens of soldiers, dressed in the dark blue uniforms of the Surrey army, ran forwards and manhandled the unresisting Vikings away. The great oak doors slammed shut behind them and silence descended on the court.

The king turned to the young man in the black habit. “Cedric of Chertsey, we thank you for your loyal service. You will stay in Morden Castle as our guest tonight and tomorrow you shall return to the abbey, with our thanks and a gift for the lord abbot.”

The novice bowed.

“I thank you, your majesty,” he said humbly. “I live only to serve.”

My eyes fixed on the young man. His words were clever, but the double meaning would not be lost on anyone – as a Benedictine, his allegiance was to a higher power.

“Step forward Sigweard, Thane of Chertsey,” commanded my father.

I watched as he reached for his ceremonial sword – a reward was coming, a new status would be conferred.

“My Lord Sigweard,” declared the king. “You have served me honourably for many years. For your loyalty, I elevate you to the Earldom of Guildown.”

Lightly he tapped the new earl on each shoulder with the sword.

“Arise Sigweard, Earl of Guildown!”

Around me the courtiers burst into applause, cheering their approval. Dutifully I smiled, but inside a numbness gripped me – this was either a master strategy or a demonstration of abject weakness. Sigweard would now control the western half of the kingdom – it was only a matter of time before he set his sights on the rest.

I looked across at Cedric as the cheers sounded around us. Our eyes met, but this time I held his gaze. His expression betrayed his concern – he shared my fears.

My father held his hand for silence and spoke again, “Step forward Sigbehrt.”

My heart sank – I knew what was coming.

“For your loyalty and service, I declare you Thane of Chertsey.”

Again the applause thundered around the hall. I forced another smile onto my face, but the panic was rising in my chest. Sigbehrt now had a title of his own – and a powerful one at that. There’d be no stopping him – he’d made no secret of his intentions -undoubtedly he’d seek my hand.

The new earl and thane bowed low before the throne. My mother stood and together the king and queen made their way to the doors at the back of the dais.

Dutifully I followed behind, playing my part – Princess Elspeth – the younger daughter of King Frithwald of Surrey. I glanced back towards Cedric – I could have sworn he gave a gentle smile as he caught my eye for a third time.

Quickly I turned my head away, looking down at the floor as I followed my parents through the entrance to the royal residence. What was I doing? What was I thinking? A princess could not marry a monk. But as my eyes had met with his, perhaps I’d felt something I’d never felt before.

I took a deep breath as the door shut behind me, relieved to be hidden from public view. In the morning the novice would be back in Chertsey – I would never see him again. The next day I’d have forgotten all about him elvankent götü büyük escortlar – or so I told myself.

There was a feast that night. The Great Hall was full. Long tables were laid with sumptuous food. The wealthy and powerful were assembled. This was a celebration the kingdom could ill afford, but one it needed to have. A victory over the Vikings was all too rare.

I tried very hard to enjoy myself on these occasions, but I hated each one more than the last. Sitting there demurely like a doll, the dry make up plastered on my face, black hair plaited and pinned in painfully tight curls – my job was to look pretty and listen in awe as the self-important bores debated politics, religion and the law.

Still, the old men were better than the women – the gaggle of opinionated harpies who spent their time gossiping about my suitors. But even they were preferable to the young bachelors of the kingdom – they were the ones competing for my favour, jostling in position as they waited to dance with me. Their elder brothers had done the same for my sister – she’d loved every minute, revelling in the attention they gave. I’d always find an excuse to take the air or retire to my bedchamber, to get away from their clammy hands and stinking breath. But the time was coming when I could avoid them no longer.

I looked to the other end of the table, expecting to see Cedric of Chertsey sitting quietly – a lonely figure, overwhelmed by the cacophony of the feasting. But no – there he was, talking animatedly to his neighbour, laughing and joking with the man next to him. I frowned – were my eyes deceiving me? Was that really my father’s finance minister? The treasurer was the most boring man in the kingdom, jealously guarding the dwindling gold reserves from any spending he considered frivolous. He hated these occasions even more than I did – he’d sit morosely, ignoring those around him, watching suspiciously as each platter of food was brought in. But there he was – bantering with the novice as if he had not a care in the world. What had Cedric done to him?

The lower tables were being cleared away now, making space for the dancing to come. Up in the gallery, the minstrels were reorganising themselves, getting ready to change the pace. This was the part I’d been dreading the most.

A hand grasped me by the shoulder, pinning me sharply, making sure I couldn’t escape. I knew immediately who it was.

“My lady,” crowed an oily voice, “might I have the honour of the first dance?”

I looked up at him as he leaned over me. The new thane was drunk – his breath smelt even worse than usual.

“Lord Sigbehrt,” I replied as disinterestedly as I could. “I must congratulate you on your elevation.”

I turned to face him, but he kept his tight grip on me. There was that smirk again – even broader than before.

“His majesty is gracious to recognise my faithful service,” he answered, his voice dripping with sycophancy.

“But my lord, ’tis reward for the greatest act of bravery,” I persisted, unsure why I was trying to flatter him. “So many Vikings taken on a single night!”

Sigbehrt smiled again, preparing to launch into a boastful retelling of his role, but he stopped himself short.

“Were it not for the young Benedictine, the longships would have sailed through Chertsey Bridge and on to Wessex,” he replied, indicating Cedric with a nod.

I turned and looked across at the novice. There he was, listening intently as the usually tight-lipped treasurer poured gossip and indiscretions into his ear.

Sigbehrt prickled and gripped my shoulder more tightly.

“Now we shall dance,” he demanded.

I sighed inwardly. It was better to give him what he wanted – the first dance was always formal, with minimal contact with the partners. If I was civil to him, he’d be civil back. I could make an escape thereafter.

“The honour is mine,” I replied, forcing a smile.

And so we danced – or at least I tried to. Sigbehrt stepped on my feet twice in the first minute and several times after that. But he neither noticed nor cared. He was too busy making sure that everyone knew, that everyone saw – I was his prize that night.

Except I wasn’t. The music ended, I feigned exhaustion and fled the Great Hall, leaving him jilted and shaking with rage. Not that it mattered – he’d be back in Chertsey the next day – with any luck I wouldn’t see him for months.

I pretended to withdraw to my bedchamber, but gave the ladies-in-waiting the slip and instead headed out into the cold night air. It was already dark outside. I lifted the hood of my cloak over my head, completing my transformation to anonymity – it was a disguise I used so often – no one would give me a second glance.

Past the castle dungeon I crept, glancing down at the metal grating that let minimal air into the cells below. I imagined the prisoners, huddled together, listening to the sounds of celebration as they lay in their misery on the damp, earthen floor. Perhaps there’d etimesgut çıtır escortlar be a noble or even a prince among their number – my father would extract a hefty ransom if there was. The rest would die – there was no doubt about it. They’d hang in towns across the realm – a warning to those who’d challenge King Frithwald.

Slowly I climbed the steps to the castle walls. I loved gazing out from the ramparts, watching as the world retired for the night, wondering what it would be like to be free of the shackles of royal life. The moon was hidden and the lights of the town below me burned brightly. The streets were empty, the common folk were already asleep – just a handful of guardsmen keeping watch in the market square.

Silently I crept behind the turret at the north-western corner of the battlements. The sounds of celebrating soldiers reached my ears. I frowned – they were not supposed to drink on duty. But what was the harm? The tide of war had run against us for so long – who would begrudge them this moment?

Who was that – standing alone on the western wall, holding aloft a flaming torch, staring down into the forest beyond the river? That silhouette was unmistakeable! But what was he doing here?

Cautiously, I moved towards him, doing my best to hide the sound of my footsteps. He heard my approach and turned towards me. It took a second for him to recognise me in the flickering light, but then he bowed low.

“My lady,” the young Benedictine mumbled deferentially. Perhaps he expected admonishment.

I glanced over the battlements. Was that another light I saw at the edge of the forest? Rapidly it disappeared. Perhaps my eyes were playing tricks – doubtless a peasant securing his animals for the night.

“The hero of the kingdom!” I replied wryly.

“I am no hero, my lady,” Cedric said quietly – it was the sort of self-deprecating answer I’d expect of a novice.

“But you are!” I insisted teasingly. “You made the Vikings panic – you pushed them ashore when they were ill-prepared for a landing, right into the hands of our soldiers.”

He shook his head. His expression was one of seriousness.

“I set two fire boats – the simple rowing boats the peasants use – barely big enough for two grown men. How could they panic two hundred raiders? Surrender five longships – for that?” he asked incredulously.

His tone alarmed me, pouring cold water over the euphoria of victory. I’d been so caught up in the humbling of the Vikings and the likely consequences of Sigbehrt’s promotion, that I’d never stopped to ask if the story made sense.

“Doubtless there were others, but without your actions, they could not have played their part.” I was attempting to flatter him, more for my sake than his – but I could hear my words ringing hollow.

Cedric made as if to speak again but thought better of it.

“And now,” I continued, “there are forty prisoners here in our jail and eight score more at Chertsey. The Viking king will pay a heavy ransom for their lives.”

Cedric frowned, hesitating for a moment.

“Your father is a skilled negotiator,” he said slowly. “If anyone can make peace with the raiders, it is he.”

I nodded. Surrey was poor and weak, but the cunning of my father’s diplomacy had preserved the kingdom from attack by our neighbours several times.

“But the Vikings – they will not be satisfied,” Cedric continued. “Maybe they will leave their attacks on this kingdom for a few years, but they will turn their fight to others. Already they harry the coast of Sussex. Mercia will be next – they sense its weakness.”

I looked at him incredulously. Who was this novice monk who dared to predict the enemy’s next move?

“And how do you presume to know the mind of the Vikings?” I challenged.

“You hear much talk when you wait on the abbot’s table,” he replied.

That was probably true, I reasoned. Chertsey was in the far northwest of the kingdom, close to the borders of Mercia and Wessex, on one of the few bridges over the Great River. High-status travellers passed through the town every day and would seek a bed at the abbey. An attentive novice would learn much from their stories.

“The idle talk of common merchants and travellers is of no concern to a wise ruler,” I countered dismissively. “Mercia has little to fear. King Beohred is wise, he will see off the raiders. They will not trouble his lands.”

Cedric let out a snort of derision and threw his head back in mirth.

“Beohred is a fool!” he cried. “What has he done these past three years? He should have been building forts, training men, repairing the stone walls of Londinium – but nothing – he has done nothing! His men lounge around in Lundenwick, watching as the raiders attack your father’s lands. If the enemy turns north, they will be crushed.”

“Hold your tongue novice!” I snapped. “You speak of things you do not know. King Beohred is my brother-in-law. He is a brave warrior, he will defend his people. Mercia has nothing to fear from the Vikings!”

Cedric bowed his head. “Forgive me, my lady,” he said apologetically. “I spoke in haste. Your father has made a good match for your sister.”

I stared at the novice in disbelief, dumbstruck by his confidence. The insult to my brother-in-law was verging on treason. I should shout for the guard, have him carted away for his slander.

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