Meeting in the Snow – A Story for Christmas

The 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 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 prickly pine needles surrounded him. Far below, the ground was covered with thick snow. Snow also lay on the exposed branches of the surrounding trees and a little had even settled on the boy’s back. Everything was still. Everything was silent.

There had been plenty of noise earlier, when 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 hall, a Yule log to burn for the twelve days, and nights, of Christmas. The children tried 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 night. Soft white flakes fell. It was time to go.

As the boy debated how to get back down the tree, he heard something. He froze. 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 in the darkness?

There were three men, one in front and two following. Tired, they huddled on the slow-moving horses. The first horse was white, seemingly 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 beneath the tree, and the boy craned down for a better look. He lost his balance, his numb hands unable to maintain their grip in the frozen 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 extricated himself from the snowdrift and brushed the 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 close to Winchester?”

“It’s not far. Just carry on along this road.”

“Can you show us the way?” 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 strong white 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.

“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?”

“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 your 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.”

“That’s sad.”

“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 horse’s 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?”

“You must be good at killing your enemies,” said the boy.

“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 looked 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 when 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 grunted.

The other man 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 Æthelstan of Wessex, King of all England rode on to attend his Christmas Court at Winchester.


Historical note:
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 books, I have taken his year of birth to be 930.
Æthelstan, 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?

This post is part of the Historical Writers Forum December Blog Hop. Tomorrow it is Paula Lofting’s turn and the Blog Hop finishes on Christmas Day with a post from Alex Marchant. If you missed any posts you can find the links here:

6th Dec Jen Black https://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com/
 8th Dec Derek Birks https://dodgingarrows.wordpress.com/
9th Dec Jen Wilson Jennifercwilsonwriter.wordpress.com
11th Dec Janet Wertman https://janetwertman.com/
12 Dec  Margaret Skea https://margaretskea.com/blog/
13th Dec Sue Barnard http://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.com/
15th Dec Lynn Bryant http://www.lynnbryant.co.uk/blog/
16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson https://samanthawilcoxson.blogspot.com/
17th Dec Nicky Moxey https://nickymoxey.com/2019/12/17/christmas-gifting-in-1181
18th Dec Nancy Jardine https://nancyjardine.blogspot.com
19th Dec Wendy J Dunn http://www.wendyjdunn.com/christmas-at-the-tudor-court-a…/
20th Dec Judith Arnopp  https://juditharnoppnovelist.blogspot.com/atudorchristmas
21st Dec Tim Hodkinson http://timhodkinson.blogspot.com/
22nd  Vanessa Couchman https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com/blog/
23rd Christine Hancock https://byrhtnoth.com/
24th Paula Lofting https://paulaloftinghistoricalnovel.worpress.com
25th Alex Marchant https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com  

Or read all the posts at Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop Page

The Devil’s Dyke

As the year ends, we look back to what has happened during the last twelve months; what we have done, and what we haven’t done. One of those undone things is to update this blog, so now is the time to catch up on those posts I meant to write – and then got distracted.

Back in August we spent a few days in Suffolk. The object was to visit the new exhibition at Sutton Hoo, but more about that another time. On the journey to Woodbridge, we stopped at a place I had wanted to visit for some time: The Devil’s Dyke.

There are several places in the British landscape that have been given the name of Devil’s Dyke, the most well known is a valley in the South Downs, near Brighton. The Devil’s Dyke is not a natural feature, it was built by man, and Anglo-Saxon men at that. It runs across the Cambridgeshire countryside from one unimportant place to another. Why was it there?

Everyone has heard of Offa’s Dyke; a bank and ditch that separates England and Wales, or at the time that it was supposed to have been built, by King Offa in the eighth century, to keep the Welsh out of Mercia.

The Devil’s Dyke was built, probably in the 6th or 7th century, to keep the Mercians out of East Anglia. East Anglia has always been difficult to reach from the west, even in recent times. It was not until the A14 was built that it became easier (although for travellers stuck in hold-ups on that road, that is a debatable point.)

To the north the Wash and the Fens reach deep into the land and to the south, there was thick forest. There was only one easy route, a strip of chalk grassland through which ran the Icknield Way. This ancient trackway, perhaps named after the Iceni tribe, ran from Wiltshire to Norfolk. Later, the Romans used it. In the nineteenth century a railway, now dismantled, was built that way. And where people travelled, whether traders or armies, control was needed.

The Anglo-Saxons built several dykes across the route: Bran Ditch, Brent Ditch, Fleam Dyke and the longest and best preserved Devils Dyke.

For such a large and prominent landmark, it was remarkably difficult to find. We had found maps and walks online and decided to start at the northernmost end, a village called Reach. We would walk along the dyke as far as we had time for and return to our car to continue our journey.

The drive to Reach was an adventure in itself. Small winding lanes among fenland drains, with road signs that disappeared at the most inconvenient moment, but eventually we arrived and parked close to the Dykes End pub. A good place to start – we thought.

The centre of Reach

We now encountered an excess of signs. Apart from the road signs there were a multitude of walk directions at the entrance to a footpath just behind where this photo was taken. That must be the way. We walked up it (in my experience, the correct route is always up a hill!), round corners, through a few fields, ate a few blackberries. Where was the dyke? We consulted the compass, compared it with the maps, had a heated argument and ended up back in the village – all without finding anything that resembled a dyke.

Had we misread the map? Had we gone in the wrong direction? Look at that picture (above). See that clump of trees at the end of the green? That is the dyke! In fact, once we found the cunningly hidden explanation board, we discovered that the green was originally part of the dyke, flattened.

Hoping no one had noticed our mistake, we fought our way through the undergrowth to find ourselves in what we thought was the dyke ditch. Of course, as we were walking south with the bank on our right, we were, in fact, on the defended, East Anglian side of the dyke.

East Anglia to the left. Mercia beyond the dyke to the right.

It was a warm muggy day and we tramped through the long grass disturbing butterflies and other insects. It was very peaceful. Eventually we found a steep path up onto the top of the dyke. We could see for miles.

Looking into Mercia. Is King Penda on the way?
Path along the top of the dyke, heading south.

It was a pleasant walk. We met the occasional dog walker. If we had carried on we would have eventually reached Newmarket; the southern end of the dyke forms part of the racecourse there. The dyke is seven miles long and in places the bank measures 9 metres (30 ft) high and 36.5 metres (120 ft) across.

We stopped when we got to the dismantled railway, with its own earthworks (Interesting if you like railways) about a mile from Reach. According to the map there is a Roman Villa in the area, but we didn’t spot it.

Looking back along the ditch from close to the railway.

We walked along the railway to the road and them back to the village along field edges. The dyke was in view most of the way back but almost impossible to see. The green slopes and trees which grew along the top camouflaged it against the flat countryside.

Originally, having been built of chalk, it must have stood out against the green land proclaiming the power of King Rædwald and East Anglia. How many men died on its slopes, defending their kingdom? They are long gone and now all is peaceful.

I wonder what it was like when Byrhtnoth was alive? Both Mercia and East Anglia had been subsumed in the country that had become England. But the Great Heathen Army arrived and eventually what had been East Anglia and the eastern part of Mercia were part of the Danelaw.

The Devil’s Dyke was no longer needed. It is an indication of its size and bulk that, after more than a thousand years so much of it still survives. Perhaps because it is so well hidden!

Writing a Historical Detective Novel – NaNoWriMo update

What is Historical Detective Fiction and why would I want to write it?
A good question and difficult to answer.

The short answer is that I was coming to the end of The Byrhtnoth Chronicles (at least for the time being) but wanted to continue to inhabit the same “Universe”. Byrhtnoth deserved a rest, so why not take one of the other characters and tell their story?

The character was obvious, but what story did they have to tell? Among the many historical fiction books that I have read, I have especially enjoyed series with a detective character, solving a crime, usually a murder. The first I read must have been Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael, the first “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” was published in 1977. I must have read most of the series before it was televised, which I felt was a disaster – the casting of Derek Jacobi was completely wrong.

After that I looked for other series, covering many different periods.
From the Roman era there is Lindsey Davis’ Falco.
Susanna Gregory writes about Brother Bartholomew, a 14th Century monk and also Thomas Chaloner a Civil War spy trying to survive after the Restoration.
Then, of course, there is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII written by C. J. Sansom.

In the Victorian period there is Anne Perry with both William Monk (1850-60s) and Thomas Pitt (1880-1890s) and bringing us into the (early) 20th century, Amelia Peabody, an Egyptian archaeologist, written by Elizabeth Peters.

Then there are the one-offs: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, although in that case the detective is modern, only the crime is historical; and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. This is on television at the moment and the plot is made more impenetrable by the bad sound quality.

“What are these words supposed to be?”

I could go on, there are many more. Find your favourites here.
I notice there is nothing set in the 10th Century. Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne detects in 7th Century Ireland then there is nothing until after the Norman conquest.

Can I fill that gap? That is where NaNoWriMo comes in. I posted about how I was doing at the halfway point. Now it has finished, and I am pleased to say that I reached 50,341 words on 27th November – three days early!

Is it a Historical Detective Novel? Well, it has a murder and several suspects, It has a detective and several red herrings. I have not managed to get to the traditional “gather everyone in the library and reveal the murderer” moment, but I know who “did it”. Whether it is any good will take a lot more work – I haven’t even read it through yet.

I found it easy to write, but I encountered several problems.
In particular, names. I have mentioned this subject before here. Anglo-Saxon names can be difficult – they all had the same , or similar, and most of them are unfamiliar to the general reader. There were no surnames. I think I have managed OK in my previous books, with a small group of people continuing through 3/4 books with only the occasional new addition. Detective fiction is a whole different ball game.

I knew before I started that there would be a problem. I needed a victim and suspects, so I had already found names for them. Where? What is the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon names ever collected? The Doomsday Book! There are a lot of Norman names as well, but most places had an A-S owner in the time of King Edward.

I went about it logically. I had already found a location for my crime, so I looked it up in Doomsday, together with a few of the surrounding villages, and produced a list so that I could pick a name when I needed it. I know that the names in 1066 are not the same people who were living there over a hundred years before, but I assumed that if there were any regional variations in name usage, they would be reasonably genuine.

And I did need a lot of names! Think about a detective story. There are not just the obvious suspects; there are other witnesses. There is the local policeman, who has arrested an innocent man. There is the character with local knowledge to befriend the detective, plus his wife. There is the young boy/servant who can mix with the lower classes, run errands and take messages. This is all apart from working out what the local Anglo-Saxon equivalent is. As I said, there is a lot of work to do!

Then there is also the problem with how to address people. I was used to using either proper name or “my lord”. Just how did an Anglo-Saxon address a suspect without a Mr This or Mrs That. Did they use Sir and Madam? It doesn’t sound right.

Another difficulty I encountered was how to deal with those little phrases that crop up in an interview/ conversation. “Tell me more” “What did you do next” “Where were you that day” “Did you batter XXXX to death with a candlestick?”. So much easier to have a fight and chop someone’s head off.

Perhaps I’m not cut out to be a detective novelist. I’m sure everyone will be able to work out the guilty party long before the end. At least I have had a go, and that is what NaNoWriMo is all about. I will finish the story, leave it alone for a bit, then give it a read. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised. If not, at least I have learned a lot about historical detective fiction.

Meanwhile I must get back to Byrhtnoth and solve his problems. Perhaps he will have to carry on with his adventures after all.

Just to prove I did it!