Last night it was a great pleasure to attend another Words Of live lit event organised and run by author Jenefer Heap, and held Upstairs at Merchants, in Warwick. There was a varied and thoroughly entertaining line-up of local authors sharing their work to an appreciative audience. The evening was entitled Once Upon A Word and was an eclectic mix of short stories, poems, monologues, renditions of all sorts on the theme of (you’re ahead of me on this one, I can tell) fairy stories and all that implies. We had Cinders (of course) The Pied Piper, nymphs, sprites, knights in armour, a wonderful re-telling of a traditional Indian tale – we even had the Young Poet Laureate for Warwick, Annabelle Peet join us! It was while I was researching fairy tales that I sank deeper in the internet quicksand of ‘ooh that’s interesting!’ and ‘well I never knew that!’ and by the time my coffee had gone cold I had written a piece of creative non-fiction, rather than a short story.
And here it is. It’s called
Come closer and I will tell you a tale. A tale of love, of power and secrets.
Long ago, when Warwick was a small town on the banks of the river Avon, in a time when the Vikings looked covetously toward our shores, and a long, long time before you and I, there lived a warrior queen called Aethelflaed and a river sprite called Dite.
Aethelflaed was The eldest daughter of Alfred The Great and born into a turbulent world of power, wealth and war. At sixteen she married Ethelred of Mercia but their union bore only one child, a daughter, in 888. Aethelflaed named the baby Aelfwynn and no sooner was she born, than Aethelflaed returned to war – because Aethelflaed preferred the battlefield to babies.
Now, the river sprite, Dite, lived a very different life deep in the shadowy waters of the river Avon. It was said that she was over 500 years old. Others proclaimed her to be a bewitched spirit, cast into the river by the Romans and left to drown when they retreated south across Europe. But whatever the truth about Dite, all agreed: to see her was portentous; for her to speak, then no good could ever come of it.
In 899, when Aelfwynn was eleven, King Alfred died and Aethelflaed’s brother Edward became king of the Angles and Saxons. The war against the ferocious Vikings continued and Aethelflaed felt that soon they would be in Warwick itself. She moved Aelfwynn to the safety of a fortified castle protected by the wealth and privilege that being niece to the King bestowed. But Aethelflaed still worried: her daughter was approaching marriageable age and it was imperative she find a suitable husband for her as soon as possible.
One morning, Aethelflaed took a solitary walk down to the river Avon, deep in thought.
Hidden at the waters edge, Dite silently watched. She studied Aethelflaed’s young face, her sumptuous clothes and her well-made shoes. This, she considered, was a wealthy woman. Perchance this was Aethelflaed, the warrior woman of whom everyone spoke.
“Good day, mistress,” said the Sprite.
Startled, Aethelflaeda stepped back from the water’s edge.
“Good day,” she replied cautiously.
“You look sad mistress,” said Dite. “What ails you?”
“The time has come for me to consider a husband for my daughter, but I know not where to look.”
“A difficult decision, mistress,” said Dite. “But better early than too late.”
“Too late?” said Aethelflaed nervously
“Worry not, Mistress,” soothed Dite.
When she spoke, Dite’s voice was small and soft, as though the wind was sucking it gently from her lungs and blowing it away in a sigh.
“Who does your daughter love?” the Sprite asked.
“No-one. My daughter loves no-one. She is but a child, but she will marry whom I choose,” Aethelflaed replied.
“You control many things mistress, but not all things,” said Dite. “Remember that and all will be well. But forget it at your peril. You do not choose love, it chooses you,” she said, then dipped back into the water and disappeared.
Dite’s words bothered Aethelflaed greatly; the Sprite had sown a seed of doubt and over time it began to grow. Slowly at first, but as Aelfwynn blossomed into a young woman Aethelflaed’s distrust of her daughter began to sour their friendship, gnawing like a rat at their bond. By the time Aelfwynn was fifteen her mother’s anxiety had fermented into an obsessive suspicion. Aethelflaed forbade Aelfwynn to speak to anyone unless chaperoned, permitted her only to socialise with the ladies of the court. Aethelflaed’s quest to find a husband for her daughter gave her sleepless nights and Aelfwynn became isolated and lonely. And yet… a determined and bright young woman, she soon learned to be resourceful.
“I came to your chambers last night,” her mother said one morning, “but could not find you there.”
“I was afeared I was sickening so took a walk down the river – it is so cool there. I feel much better now,” replied Aelfwynn. Aethelflaed looked at her daughter’s pallor. Was it sickness that made her so pale, or was it lies?
As battles with the Vikings continued Aethelflaed and Ethelred spent much time away from their daughter employing spies to watch her in their absence. But Aelfwynn was shrewd: she used her time wisely making friends, becoming an interpreter and diplomat, and successfully side-stepping all attempts to marry her off, finding one excuse after another. Aelfwynn still remained unmarried at 23, when her father died.
Now Aethelflaed heard Dite’s words more than ever: Better too early than too late.
“I will not marry him!” Aelfwynn protested when her mother suggested a man who had sworn a never-ending hatred of the Vikings. The two women had been arguing for hours.
“I will marry for love, Mother, not to prolong this hated war! Will this bloodshed never end? I will marry for love, not hate!” Aelfwynn declared, “and you will not stop me!”
The tension between the two women spread through the court, spilling out onto the streets of Warwick where the townsfolk gossiped and chattered. Was Aethelflaed losing her touch? Suitors were presented one after the other. Time was of the essence and Aethelflaed’s pride was at stake: she would make her daughter bend to her will.
On June the 12th, 918, however, Aethelflaed unexpectedly died. Aelfwynn became ruler of Mercia.
But…you know…things don’t always work out the way we want them to, do they? Within three months of Aethelflaed’s untimely death, King Edward removed Aelfwynn from power and banished her to Wessex. She disappeared from the history books never to be heard of again and Edward seized control of Mercia. Tracing what clues they can find, Historians wonder if Aelfwynn, with her newly acquired freedom, had defied convention and married without permission. Perhaps a love she had kept secret for many years had instantly become a secret marriage – a marriage that enraged the King because her husband was the enemy: a Viking.
Was Aelfwynn put in a nunnery to live out her days as no more than a prisoner? If so, was she with child by then – a child with the mixed bloodline of a Viking warrior and an Anglo-Saxon princess? Whatever became of her we shall never know – her history has been denied the chance to speak. Perhaps Aelfwynn’s ancestors walk amongst us now.
Maybe a young man, on visiting Warwick four hundred years or more after these events found himself resting on the banks of the Avon, and maybe he found himself in conversation with a river Sprite who urged him to right this wrong. May be the river sprite encouraged him to write about star-crossed lovers and their warring nations. That also, we shall never know. But it’s a nice thought.
Have you been to Warwick recently? Walked the streets where Aethelflaed and Aelfwynn once walked? Picnicced perhaps, on the banks of the Avon?
Look deep into the bulrushes, pay close attention to the ripples in the water… you never know what you may see… because Sprites, I hear, love to tell a story or two…