Kingdom of Wessex, in the year of our Lord Nine Hundred and Thirty Eight.
The boy was cold. He flexed his hands, but his fingers were becoming numb. He had lost all feeling in his toes long ago. He was high in a tree, lying flat along a thick branch. The fresh smell of the bristly pine needles surrounded him. Far below, the ground was covered with thick snow. Snow lay also on the exposed branches of the surrounding trees. Everything was still. Everything was silent.
There had been plenty of noise earlier, as the crowds had ventured out into the forest. A tree had been carefully selected by the foresters and chopped down. Many people were needed to pull it back to the town. A Yule log to burn for the twelve days, and nights, of Christmas. The children wanted to help, but only got in the way, climbing and jumping over the great trunk, dodging in and out of the ropes. Someone suggested a game of hide and seek. No one had found the boy in the tree. He thought he must have won the game.
It had been dull all day, heavy grey clouds hung full bellied, low in the sky. But now it was getting darker, a dull red glow showed where the winter sun was giving up its fight against the dark. Soft white flakes started to fall. It was time to go.
As the boy thought about how to get back down the tree, he heard a sound. He froze and listened. It was the sound of horses, tramping slowly through the snow. The occasional crack as a hoof broke through the frozen surface, the crunch as the snow compacted underfoot. As they came nearer, he heard the quiet jingle of harness. Who rode through the forest at this time of day?
They came in sight. There were three men, one in front and two following. They looked tired, huddled on the slow-moving horses. The first horse was white. It seemed carved out of the snow itself. The rider was swathed in black. The following horsemen were just dark shapes moving though the swirling snowflakes. Suddenly, the sun discovered a chink in the armour of the clouds and sent a final triumphant dart of light through the trees. The leading rider looked up and his head glowed with a golden light. The boy gasped. The sun set and darkness returned.
What had he seen? For a moment, the man on the horse had looked like the pictures painted on the walls of the church. Was he a saint? If he was, which one? The riders were nearly beneath the tree and the boy craned down for a better look. He lost his balance. His numb hands were unable to maintain their grip in the cold branch. He struggled and then, in a cloud of snow and pine needles he plummeted to the ground.
He landed in a drift of snow that had collected at the side of the path. Winded, he lay for a moment, and then struggled to his feet. The following riders were no longer muffled shapes but armed men, moving towards him.
“Stop!” shouted the man on the white horse. “It’s just a boy.” The men stopped but did not sheath their swords. The boy stared at them, then looked up at the man beside him.
“I’m not a boy. I’m one of the king’s warriors.”
“Oh, you are, are you?” The rider inspected the skinny boy standing before him, buried up to his knees in snow. “Where did you come from?”
The boy had extricated himself from the snowdrift and was brushing snow from his clothes. “I fell out of that tree.”
“I didn’t think you floated down on a snowflake. Why were you up a tree?”
“We were… training. Practicing how to hide in the snow.”
“Very successfully.” The man looked around at the empty landscape. “I can’t see anyone.”
“They’ve all gone home.” muttered the boy. He hugged his arms round his body trying to get warm.
“You look cold.”
“I’m all right.” The boy stood up straight.
The man nodded. “Are we near to Winchester?”
“It’s not far. Just carry on along this road.”
“Can you show us the way to go?” He leaned down and held out a hand.
The boy stared at up the man. His hair wasn’t fiery gold, just fair, with a few threads of silver running through it. It was cut short, as was his beard. His face was tanned and his pale blue eyes were surrounded by the wrinkles of someone who had spent much of his life staring into the sun. He smiled showing white even teeth. He didn’t look dangerous, so the boy grasped the offered hand. He was pulled upwards and settled on the horse’s back. The man was stronger than his slender frame suggested. The man tucked his thick black fur cloak around his passenger and urged the horse into motion again.
“So. How long have you been the king’s warrior?”
“A whole year. Well, nearly.”
“Nearly a year. That’s a long time.” The boy nodded. “Are you any good?”
“Well. I beat most of the other boys, most of the time.”
“Only most of the time?”
“All right, all of the time, but I don’t want to boast.”
“Of course not.” Laughed the rider. “Perhaps you can come and fight with me, in a year or so.” The boy thought about it.
“ I’ve only used a wooden sword. They won’t let me fight with a proper sword.” He glanced longingly at the sword that hung from the saddle.
“You can do a lot of damage with a wooden sword. If you know how to use it properly.”
“I know.” The boy looked up and grinned. “You can’t kill anyone though.”
“Do you want to kill somebody?”
“Sometimes. When they call me names.”
“Why do they call you names?” The man glanced down at the boy. “Because you are better than them?”
“No.” The boy pulled the cloak tighter around his body. “It’s because I don’t have a father.”
“I’m sorry about that. Did he die?” The boy just buried his head deeper in the dark fur.
The man stared into the whiteness ahead and lowered his voice. “Sometimes it’s better to have no father at all, than one that hates you.” They rode on in silence.
“What about you mother?” asked the man gently.
“She died, the summer before last.”
“But you remember her?”
“Of course.” The boy thought for a moment. “I think I do.”
“You have that, then. I don’t remember mine at all.”
“It was a long time ago. I’m over it now.”
“Are you?” The boy twisted to look up at the face above him. The man looked down and smiled.
“Of course I am.” He dug his heels into the horses flanks but it refused to move faster, just plodded on. “So you became a warrior?”
“Yes. Now I have friends, the other boys.”
“Apart from the ones you want to kill?”
The boy laughed. “You must be good at killing.”
“Some people say I am. I’m still alive anyway.”
“Did you fight at Brunanburh? With the king?”
“I did fight there, yes.”
“It must have been exciting. I want to know what happened, but no one will tell me about it.”
“A lot of people died. Perhaps in the future, when the friends of the men who died have gone, people will talk about it. When you are older, you will understand. I see lights ahead. Is that Winchester?”
The boy stared into the darkness. “Yes, that’s it.” He looked round. “I’d better go. They’ll be wondering where I am.” He unwrapped himself reluctantly from the cloak. “Thank you for the ride.” Before the horse had stopped, the boy had jumped, landing lightly on his feet. He ran a few paces and turned to look up at the man on the white horse.
“Perhaps you can tell me about other fights. An old man like you must have fought in many battles.”
“Not so much of the old.” The man grinned down at the boy. “I’ll be busy while I’m here, but I’ll see what I can do.” The boy was already moving away, but he turned, and shouted back.
“There will be plenty of time. It’s Christmas.” The sound echoed through the trees and the boy ran on, faster. He leaped over an obstacle, landing in a pile of snow. He shook himself like a dog and ran on. He dodged through the trees and disappeared. Only the sound of his voice lingered. “It’s Christmas!”
The man on the white horse watched him go. “Perhaps I am getting old.” He sighed.
“Come on, let’s get a move on, it’s nearly dark.”
“He was very disrespectful, my lord.” One of the attendants grumbled.
“He was young. We were all young once. Even you.” The man just grunted.
The other man had removed something from a soft leather bag “Do you want to wear the crown for your entrance into the city?” He held it out.
“I suppose I must.” He took the gold circlet and carefully placed it on his head.
Then King Aethelstan of Wessex, King of all England rode on to attend his Christmas Court at Winchester.
The boy is, of course, Byrhtnoth. When he died at the Battle of Maldon in 991, it is thought that he was in his sixties. For the purposes of my book, I have taken his year of birth to be 930.
Aethelstan, grandson of King Alfred died on 27th October 939. He was in his early forties. He had become the first King of England and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. It is not known where he spent Christmas 938. Perhaps at Winchester?