A Christmas Feast

This post is part of the Historical Writers Forum Christmas Blog Hop, celebrating Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve. My gift (and also a free giveaway at the end) isn’t an extract from a book, but something new. It is set at Christmas AD 947 between the end of the second book of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles, Bright Axe, and the third, Bright Blade.

It is a wedding. The ceremony has been performed and the happy couple and their friends return to the Hall for the Wedding Feast.

Hild filled two cups with mead and presented them to us. We both took a large mouthful. Saewynn nearly choked on hers, I patted her back, and we laughed. I took her arm and led her into the hall. I sat down in my great, carved chair, and Saewynn sat on the bench beside me.

            “You need your own chair. You’re too far away there. Edward, find some cushions for my wife.” There, I had said it, my wife. “On second thoughts,” I bent and lifted her from her seat and onto my lap,” there’s plenty of room for two. We can talk without shouting; it’s going to get noisy very quickly.” The mead horn was passing down the tables.

            “I can’t sit here; it’s the lord’s chair.”

            “And you are the lord’s wife.” I gave her a lingering kiss and cheering filled the hall, offering toasts to our happiness.

            “Is this seat free?” asked Wulfstan.

            “I think it must be. Sit down and have a drink.” Saewynn filled his cup and helped herself to more mead.

            “Not too much of that, it’s going to be a long night.” She looked up at me and blushed. I realised what I had said. “The feast I meant,” I said with a grin.

            “Of course.” She stared down into the golden liquid and replaced the cup on the table.

            “Can I have some bread?” I opened my mouth, and after a pause, she broke off a piece, still warm from the oven, and placed it on my tongue. “Thank you.”

            The cheering grew louder when servants brought in a loaded platter.

            “It’s a boar’s head,” whispered Saewynn.

            “Where did you find that? There hasn’t been a boar hunt around here for ages.” I watched as they carefully placed it on the table before us. It gleamed in the light from the candles; a dark golden-brown reclining on a bed of fruit and vegetables.

            “Lord Ethelwine brought it,” said Hild. “He had to show me how to cook it.”

            “I wondered where you had got to,” I said as Ealdorman Athelstan’s son slipped onto the bench. “I didn’t know you were interested in cooking.”

            “A present from my mother. She wouldn’t let me leave until I could recite the instructions properly.”

            “How is she? She didn’t look well when I saw her last.”

            “Feeling better, but not as she should be.”

            “I’m sorry to hear that.”

            “Is that brawn?” Saewynn had been watching more dishes appear.

            “I remember you said you liked it,” Hild replied. “That was why we’re a bit late; the jelly refused to set. We had to dip the bowl in the river.”

            “I’m sure it will taste just as good.”

            “None for me.” I shuddered. I knew it would contain the brains and all the other odds and ends. “I’ll have some proper meat.” Someone had stuck a sharp knife in the pig’s head at a jaunty angle. I pulled it out, carved off a chunk of meat and tasted it.

            “Perfectly cooked. I’ll have some of those baked apples as well. Do you want some?” I asked Saewynn.

            “I’ll help myself from your plate. That’s far too much for one person.”

            “I’ve got a big appetite.” I pretended to nibble her ear. She pushed me away with a smile. “That reminds me, Hild, save me an ear, they look nice and crispy.”

            “The secret’s in covering them, not letting them burn.”

            “Shut up, Ethelwine.” I raised my cup to him and started on the meat. Hild served him some and continued to Wulfstan and Edith. Brother Michael nodded eagerly; I didn’t suppose they had much boar in the monastery. More slices were piled on a platter and passed along the tables.

            Saewynn searched in her bag. The movement distracted me; perhaps I had made a mistake sitting her on my lap. It could get embarrassing.

            “Pass me more bread, Wulfstan.” I took a bite and stared down the hall.

            “I knew it was in there somewhere.” Saewynn held up a small horn spoon. “Useful for feasts. I don’t want to miss any of this delicious jelly.”

            “Careful you don’t drop some on your dress,” said Ethelwine. “It’s a beautiful colour; where did you find it? It looks like silk.”

            “Byrhtnoth brought it back from Bebbanburg. Someone gave him a tunic made from it.

            “They can’t have liked him much. That yellow wouldn’t suit him at all.”

            “It split the only time I wore it, thank goodness. Someone said it would come in handy one day, and it has.” I remembered who had told me that and returned my attention to my plate.

            “Try some of this.” Saewynn held up the spoon. It held chopped meat in a clear slimy liquid.

            “No thank you, I’ve got enough.”

            “Please?” Her head tipped, and her eyes pleaded.

            “Leola would like it.” The dog’s head leaned on the arm of my chair. Her eyes held precisely the same expression. I knew when I was beaten. I tore off a piece of meat and Leola snapped it up, nearly taking my fingers with it. I opened my mouth and let Saewynn spoon in the delicacy. I swallowed. The taste wasn’t bad, it was well seasoned and contained a mixture of herbs, but I disliked the slimy way it slid down my throat.

            “Very nice.” I grabbed my cup of mead and took a large gulp. The flavours mingled and stuck in my throat; I gagged and reached for the bread.

            “Have some more.” Saewynn offered me another spoonful with a cheeky grin.

            “Help me, Wulfstan,” I begged. “She’s trying to poison me.”

            “Sorry, she’s your responsibility now.” Laughing, he turned to Edith and served her a piece of fish.

            Saewynn waited with her spoonful of food and raised eyebrows.

            “If you insist.” I opened my mouth and closed my eyes. Nothing happened. Cautiously I opened one eye. The spoon was empty, and Saewynn was licking her lips.

            “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

            I watched her tongue and the sheen on her lips. I leaned forward. “I want to kiss you,” I said, quietly so no one could hear, “but I think the taste would put me off.” She looked disappointed.

            I cut off a piece of cheese, stored since the summer to become hard and strong. “Do you want some of this?”

            “Yes, please. Hild said it was the best she’d ever made.” I handed her some and swallowed the rest. She took a bite and nodded.

            “Thank goodness we agree on something. Try some of this apple; it goes well with the cheese.  I picked up the slice; it fell to pieces in my fingers. Her lips opened, and I smeared them with the paste. Her tongue emerged and cleaned it away, then licked the excess from my fingers; slowly and thoroughly. Her dark eyes, so close to mine, issued a challenge.

            “Could you pass the cheese?” Ethelwine interrupted.

            I hesitated. “Later,” I promised and passed the plate to Ethelwine. I squeezed my wife and surveyed the new food that had arrived.

*

News of the combined wedding and Christmas feast had spread. Some of our neighbours arrived with a scop who was passing through the area. Hild found them a place at the board; there was plenty of food to spare. Wulfstan went to talk to them, while the scop tuned his instrument. It was an opportunity to discuss arrangements for the coming year; which meadows would be opened when, and the date the animals would be moved. I should take more interest. When were the official decisions made? That was for the future. I pulled another shred of meat from the now severely depleted skull, and called for ale; I had had enough mead for now. I moved Saewynn to my other knee; the first had become numb and settled down to listen to the song of the scop.

            He was good. His voice was melodious, and he added some exciting variations to the old stories. Perhaps it was time I had my own scop. There were cheers when he finished, and I invited him to help himself to food and ale. Would he like to stay in our hall for the rest of the Christmas celebrations? He agreed; it was not the time of year to be travelling the roads. We settled on a suitable payment, and he went back to his place and started telling riddles.

            Others joined in, and soon the hall was ringing with laughter as answers were suggested and rejected. Most of them were well known, but there was always someone new to fool and women to be embarrassed by the crude interpretations. I was careful to protect my bride from the worst, but it seemed she knew all the answers and giggled at the worst misunderstandings; the result of spending too much time with soldiers. At least she would not be shy when we retired to the private chamber. I hoped it would be soon. I bent to kiss her smooth dark hair.

            “Ouch!” Something sharp pricked my face. “What was that?” I inspected the crown that still circled her head. Slightly askew, the greenery had wilted somewhat by now, and I noticed a sprig of holly, bright with berries.

            “Sorry. I told Edith it would cause trouble.” She reached up and pulled it from her head. I pushed back her hair.

            “No damage done.” The sound in the hall changed. The laughter had died away and replaced by the whispers of women. “What’s happened?” I asked Saewynn.

            “This is what they’ve been waiting for. I must throw the crown.”

            “I remember. The maid who catches it will be the next to marry. That was why none left when the men got rowdy.” I watched the women jostle for position. One practised jumping, some eyed their favoured men, while others just looked hopeful, or desperate. As they waited, men made wagers as to who would win, as if it was some horse race.  They gathered in the space between the tables, and the scop escaped to a distant corner. Inga handed her baby to one of the older women looking on. I wouldn’t have expected her to take part; Redwald had only died that summer. Perhaps she missed a man in her bed, although from the talk around the village she didn’t lack that, just a husband. She pushed one of the other girls out of the way and staked a place in the front rank.

            “You’ve got to do this properly,” I told Saewynn. “Do you have anyone in mind?”

            “Certainly not. I will close my eyes, and God will choose.”

            “To be fair, then, you need to throw high. Stand up, on the chair.” I lifted her high and held on to her legs. My head was close to her hip. I breathed in the scent of her hot body.

            “Everyone ready?” There were shouts and remarks from some of the men. “Close your eyes,” I told Saewynn. “Now!” The crown soared into the hot, smoky air; over the flames of the hearth, almost to the roof. What would we do if it landed on one of the rafters? It seemed to hang a moment before dropping towards the women. There were high-pitched shrieks and the sound of ripping cloth. It disappeared from view.

            “Who caught it? Can you see?” Saewynn jumped up and down. I pulled her down before excitement sent her tumbling onto the boar’s head. There were arguments and complaints before the crowd opened to reveal Hild. She held a jug of ale in one hand. She had been clearing things from the tables; in the other, she held the crown. She looked at it. She hadn’t even been taking part in the competition. She looked around the hall in confusion and dropped the prize. One of the girls scrambled to claim it. Another protested.

            “No!” My voice echoed around the hall. “God decided, and no one can question His decision.” I saw Edith nod in agreement. “Hild has won the competition. Someone, relieve her of that jug and find her somewhere to sit down. You can bring me the jug; I need a drink after all that excitement.” I sat back in the chair. “Do you know if she has any plans?”

            “Didn’t you see? Who she looked at first?”

            “No? Who?”

            “Godric.”

            “Ah. I wonder what he thinks of that. I must have a word with him.”

            “Not now,” Saewynn stopped me, “another time.”  

            Eventually, everyone calmed down. Some of the girls remained in a huddle, discussing the result. Villagers with young children hurried them away; some were already asleep. A couple of men started to argue; no one had bet on Hild, and they disagreed on how to split the money.

            “You must be tired; it’s been a long day.” Saewynn’s head rested on my shoulder. She gave a lazy nod. “They’re waiting for us to leave.” She sat up.

            “Are they?” she looked around apprehensively.

            “I need to stretch my legs. You must have eaten a lot; you’ve completely flattened me. I won’t be long; you’ve probably got things to do.” I didn’t know what, but the women had probably arranged something. I kissed the top of her head and stood up. “I’ll see you soon,” I told my wife, and went to congratulate Hild, and thank her for organising the feast.

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Will Hild get Godric to propose? Can Inga find a man, and if so, whose?

Do the bride and groom settle down happily to married life?

And how does Saewynn’s humble horn spoon save a life?

Find out in Bright Blade.
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