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

Book Review – Dunstan

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day.

At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

When I noticed this book, by Conn Iggulden, was to be published on 4th May, I was worried. I have written a book and am looking for a publisher. It starts in 937, Dunstan appears in it, although he is not the main character. How would it affect my own book? I had to check out the opposition.

As you can see from the blurb, the book is about Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury – and Saint. He lived through the period when England moved from a collection of minor kingdoms to the country it is today. Some might say this process began with Alfred and completed by his grandson, Æthelstan. Dunstan played his part by reforming the church.

It takes a strong man to do this and the Dunstan we see in this book was certainly strong. I was reminded of the Thomas Cromwell we have met in the books by Hilary Mantel. Both are men from the lower orders. Both achieve high position by their own intelligence and hard work. Both are unpleasant characters who tell their own stories. Mantel’s Cromwell, however nasty, is understandable, even, at times, sympathetic, that is the genius of her books. In this book Dunstan is just plain nasty.

It starts, not in 937, but three years earlier, as the thirteen year old Dunstan is taken to Glastonbury by his elderly father. At the same time his younger brother Wulfric also enters the monastery, but far from looking after him, Dunstan despises his brother. Why? Because he thinks he is weak and Dunstan considers anyone weaker than him is there to be used. Despite Wulfric’s later business success, which mystifies Dunstan, he must drop everything to do his brother’s bidding.

Dunstan rises. He tells us it is because he is lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but we are left to imagine the things he does not mention. The book covers his life and the reigns of seven kings. Dunstan is not interested in battles or even politics, just in how much money he can raise to complete his projects, the Abbey at Glastonbury and Canterbury Cathedral, which he believes will be his legacy. He was an interesting man, with a great interest in science and engineering, never happier than when working in his forge. It should make him more human, but he is too arrogant of his abilities. Everyone is there to serve him. One sentence sums up his attitude: “I have always forgiven my enemies, but only when they have been punished.”

As every hero needs a flaw to make him human;  a monster needs a spark of humanity to gain the reader’s sympathy. The Dunstan revealed in the book has none.

I should rejoice that a ray of light has been shone upon this period. The late tenth century has been comparatively neglected, perhaps because of the lack of major battles, and Dunstan’s is a story that has been waiting to be told. I have read a lot of books set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most, good or bad, give a flavour of life at that time, this one doesn’t. It could almost have been set in any period.

The author prides himself on the depth of his research; the first person he thanks is his researcher. So why are there so many errors? At one point someone arrived in a pony and trap – yes, there were horses and various types of cart but the expression suggests something other than this period. Elsewhere, someone is searching the crowded streets of Winchester for a girl. He cannot spot her bonnet. Bonnet? Is this a time slip novel and Jane Austin has found her way into the tenth century? Later someone, still in Winchester, looked “up the high street to the cathedral spire in the distance, dominating the city.” Winchester does not have a spire today and, I must admit, I had to look it up, doesn’t appear to ever had one.

I was particularly interested in one event – the death of King Edmund. It forms an important part in my own book. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 946. This year King Edmund died, on St. Augustine’s mass
day. That was widely known, how he ended his days: — that Leof
stabbed him at Pucklechurch.

There are not many exact dates, or even places, for events that can be identified during this period. St Augustine’s day is 26th May and Pucklechurch is easily found. So why, in this book, does this important event take place on All Hallows Eve (31st October) and at Winchester? There seems to be no reason to change it. Dunstan then says that Eadred was crowned in May 946 (it was August 16th, that year). If such facts, that can easily be checked, are incorrect, how can we trust the rest of the story?

I suppose the ordinary reader will not care about these details. It covers most of the events of St Dunstan’s life. It gives plausible explanations for the “miracles” performed by him. It has the usual replacement of personal names by more “understandable” versions, although I was a bit distracted by “Beatrice” – apparently a version was around at the time, but, to me, it sounds anachronistic. Apart from the errors, it is well written. At 480 pages I finished it in two days.

Two days when I could have been writing. I managed just over 4k words this week before I switched to reading about Dunstan.

Am I being unfair, because it doesn’t fit with “my” version of the period? I hope not, but I was glad Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned in this book – favourably or otherwise. I’m sure that if I didn’t know the period, I would have liked the book. I remember reading and enjoying the author’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar and then reading several of the Conqueror series. I didn’t read them all, I’m not sure why, perhaps I wasn’t interested enough in Genghis Khan etc.

If you want an interesting read about a neglected historical figure, buy the book. If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon history avoid it.