Swan’s Neck Ch. 09: Danegyth’s Dream

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I woke while the chill was still in the air. My Lady slept, but I was uneasy.

Downwind of the battle site, the air was scented with the smell of rotting flesh. The candles and incense did something by way of mitigation, but not enough. The waste, the horror, the stench of what I had seen earlier haunted me. Wrapping myself in my robe and a shawl, I went out to the chapel.

The monks had just finished Nones, the earliest of their hours of prayer, and the chapel was warmish, the air still thick with the smoke of the guttering candles and the scent of incense; the quietness was almost oppressive.

I knelt near the altar.

I looked up at the statue of Our Lady. My eyes strained through the smoke and the dark, but the candles in front of her illuminated her face. I began to weep. I prayed: for the soul of Harold; for my Lady and my adopted siblings; for other widows and orphans; for the dead; for England; and for mercy. Oh how my soul prayed for that. The dark seemed to gather strength, as some of the candles burnt out, their death rites casting strange shadows on the chapel walls. From somewhere I could hear the echoes of a chant. And I felt myself alone in the great swirling mass of the world. Lost, somewhere out on night’s vast ocean.

Then I saw her.

She was looking at me, smiling sadly.

‘My Lady,’ I stammered, ‘I am not worthy.’

‘My child,’ she said, ‘I will not say be not afraid, for you have much to fear. But strength will be given. I will not say that things will all be well, for they will not be; the sins of men have brought God’s wrath upon you all. But I will say I am with you.’

Suddenly I felt light, and though I was being lifted. My eyes gazed to where she seemed to float above me. A warmth went through me. With it came knowledge of things to be.

She held me. At that moment I felt fear no more, and the demons which had haunted my waking sleep were banished. The darkness suddenly seemed like light, and a blanket sense of security encompassed me: my tears were dried; my heart mended. I knew that whatever happened, she would prevail.

‘My little one,’ she said in a voice soft as velvet. ‘you will survive, as will your Lady, and her family will not be forgotten. You will have travails, but I am with you. You will have a daughter, and I will tell you her name – and she will redeem her people, though they are not your people.’

Puzzled by her words, I simply said:

‘As it is God’s will, so will His handmaid submit to it.’

She smiled. She touched my heart with her balm. From that moment to this, I have never doubted. I do not know what it is I have never doubted; I have never asked. I leave that to men like my father, who can, and will, argue about the shape of the pinhead on which angels dance. I simply felt love that night, so all pervasive that I feel it still; it will be the last thing I know before I pass into the shadowlands and am known no more here in this earthly realm.

I looked up. She was gone.

But I felt no sense of loss, but rather one of presence.

Rising, I lit a candle for the soul of Harold, another for the soul of the mother I had never known, and one for my Lady and myself. Then, çankaya escort silent as a shadow, I slipped back into our chamber, where I slept like a babe.

I awoke to light streaming into the chamber. My lady was awake and dressing. She smiled at me.

‘You were so restless my darling, and yet you seem to have slept well.’

I told her of my vision. She crossed herself.

With tears in her eyes, she said:

‘I believe. I need to. But I do. Oh how we need her help. What is to become of us?’

I was then that I revealed the plan.

I had arranged that we should go to the family properties in Ireland first, on the pretence that we needed to ensure the revenues and our title to them. I had also, through Godwin, purchased an estate in Gothenburg, the ancestral home of the Godwins. A manor was prepared there, where we should be far enough from the Bastard to be safe.

‘My darling, you have been busy. Did you think we would lose?’

‘I thought it best to have a plan, Mistress. Whatever the Bastard says, we shall have no peace in his realm.’

‘My sons will fight him; I know they will.’

‘They will my Lady, and if they lose, we shall be at his mercy. No, we must pretend to stay, but go we shall. All is prepared. There will be a ship at the southern port by the great Isle of Wight in a few days and we shall be on it.’

‘And our lands here?’

‘While we have them, there will be a steward, but I should be surprised if we have them in five years. The Bastard has promised his ravening wolves much meat, and England will be rent asunder as their reward.’

‘Well, I am fortunate in having such an able stewardess.’

She took me in her arms and embraced me. I felt her warmth; some of my calmness passed to her.

We broke our fast in the Refectory of the Abbey. The monks were quiet and respectful.

Afterwards the Abbott sent a monk to tell us that ‘the King,’ required our presence.

I dressed her hair with care, plaiting her long locks, and smoothing out her best headdress. She looked every inch the grieving Queen. And so we went to see the Bastard.

He was gracious. He could well afford to be, but by that same token, he had no need to be, and we were grateful.

He bade us sit and had drink and sweetmeats brought.

‘I want to assure you,’ he said, getting straight to business, speaking French with a strong Norman accent, but one which I could make out with a little effort, ‘that from me you have naught to fear.’

‘That,’ I said, responding for us both, as my French was readier than my Lady’s, ‘is all very well, but before your man came yesterday, a group of your men tried to attack and rape us.’

The Bastard look angry.

‘God’s teeth! Who were they, their names, and I shall have them killed.’

I smiled.

‘I saved you the trouble, my Lord.’

He looked at me, then, throwing his head back, laughed out loud.

‘God’s teeth, you are a little warrior queen. I shall have to take a care not to cross you!’

I curtsied.

‘My Lord King, we are but your loyal servants.’

‘I suspect you and your Lady are, but doubt keçiören escort her sons.’

‘Men,’ I smiled, ‘will be men.’

‘Checkmate,’ he laughed, ‘I like you, little one, you remind me of your father.’

With that, I was the one checkmated.

Of him I had not thought for years, really until his message. I should have realised he would be with the Bastard.

‘I do? On that, my Lord, you have me at an advantage.’

‘He wants to meet you when I have finished here. So let me close. You have your lands, and if there are no rebellions, you will keep them. If not, not, is that understood?’

I translated, and then did the same with Ealdgyth’s response, which was to accept.

‘My Lord,’ I added, ‘we need to visit our Irish estates to ensure there is no trouble, will you allow us that?’

He smiled.

‘As your estates are here, I am sure you will return, as I am sure you know the penalty if not.’

I curtsied.

‘One boon I would crave, my Lord.’

‘Ask,’ he replied.

‘You may be right about the sons, but be assured the daughters and the mother will foment no rebellion. My oldest step-sister wishes to be a nun, and her father would have endowed a Convent with the gift to make her Abbess one day. Now he cannot do it.’

It was a naked appeal to his magnanimity, and to his credit, he rose to it.

‘Consider it done. Tell your father and I shall make the endowment, in the name of her father.’

As I told Ealdgyth, she fell to her knees and thanked him.

It touched even that dark heart to see her gratitude so expressed. He raised her, and in halting English, told her that he would be a good Lord to her.

So it was we left him. We saw him no more, but he kept his word, and Gunnhild is now an Abbess; the only one of Harold’s children still in the country. He kept his word about the estates too, but that simply made our decision the right one. The boys could not resist trying to overthrow him, but like all the others, they failed. My exile plans were worth their weight in gold.

My Lady went back to our quarters, tired with grief and the mixed emotions of our interview. I steeled myself for what was to come.

Back at the Abbey, I was shown into a room where a tall, thin man sat with his back to me.

As I came in he turned.

‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘I told you I would protect you.’

Those grey eyes, the set of his jaw, there was the shadow of a memory triggered, and for a moment words failed me.

As I sat, he looked at me.

‘You are small, like your mother, but not I think meek.’

‘Is there a question in that, father?’

He gave a thin smile.

‘I will not pretend that I love you, yet, for I do not know you, but you need me and what I bring, and I need you, so let that suffice — for now.’

He spoke English with a Norman accent. He seemed impassive, but I sensed in him a tension.

‘How do you need me, father?’

‘You need me now the Godwins are no more, I have power, wealth and influence with the Duke, sorry, the King, but I need to establish a dynasty to secure and pass on that wealth, and will make you etimesgut escort one of the richest women in the new Kingdom.’

An appeal to money and self-interest? I thought to myself that my father was nothing if not easy to read.

‘And to whom am I to be wed father?’

I asked, softly.

‘That is the spirit my girl. Hugh Bigod, one of the greatest of William’s followers, and he will get most of the Godwin lands in the east, which will make you a great lady in the land.’

I expressed my thanks, as he would have expected a good daughter to do. He smiled.

‘Of course, your irregular life with this woman of Harold’s must stop, but at least you are a virgin, and Hugh will pay me highly for that. I am glad to see you are a good girl, I had expected resistance.’

‘Of course, father,’ I responded, ‘I am a realist. I am fortunate that you are high in the favour of the new King, and I will do what you expect of me. I am not a fool; what life would I have with the cast-off concubine of the dead King?’

He smiled.

‘You are indeed my daughter. Your poor dear mother, she never could see that life is about rising in the world and getting money. You do, and together we shall be a power in the land. Now, come, kiss your father.’

Dutifully, I kissed his cheek.

‘You are a good girl,’ he said, ‘and we shall speak soon.’

He went.

I wanted to vomit. The idea that I was that man’s child revolted me. But I felt Our Lady telling me I was her child, and I stopped shaking.

Back with Ealdgyth, I explained what had happened.

‘But he has a point little one, you could indeed have great power and wealth.’

‘Until I died in childbirth, I could live at the mercy of a boon companion of a man I hate, until death becomes a welcome gateway of escape. No, I love you, and as for ‘unnatural,’ well I take no advice from a Church which tells men they may not fuck as God intended.’

She laughed.

‘You are such a fierce little kitten, my pet. Let us go home.’

We bade farewell to the Abbott, and then to Senlac field, where Harold fell, and England ended.

At journey’s end we fell together, needing the life that passion gave.

That night I brought my Mistress the comfort that only one woman can give another. I was her adopted daughter, her lover, her kitten, her wife, and she was my everything. I poured myself out for her, emptying myself of all, lavishing her with love, affection and my desire, until, stirring these things in her, she forgot, for a moment, her grief.

I took my reworked, smooth spindle, and parting her legs, I took the man’s part with her, but with a softness and a care which, she told me, few men give. She found her needs catered for. She needed to feel that pressure in her, and on her, she needed to be wanted desired and taken with an eagerness born of lust. But she needed to know it was the product, too, of love, a deep well of affection bubbling up with her juices. And as I pressed her in her familiar places and she moaned, there came to her a sort of healing. Death had taken so much, but life, ah, life still had for her the pleasures of delight in love, in me, in us.

As I sucked her nipples, lying so I could penetrate her and play with her bud, Ealdgyth the fair came back to life, and love, and to a kind of happiness. In the midst of death and despair, she knew, as I did, that life still held its delights. She came, and came, and came for me, and each time it affirmed that we would go on, and that Death would have no dominion.

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