Ædith walked slowly, her heart was beating powerfully as the adrenalin flowed through her veins. This was the moment she had dreamed of as she stared straight ahead through the thin mesh of her veil. She looked neither right nor left, ignoring the admiring glances of the gentlefolk who were lining the path leading to the Cathedral. Ahead, standing before the closed oak doors, the priest stood silent, his hands clasped before him, palms together. At her left side, her father, Æthelhelm, Duke of Wessex, and to her right, her Prince, Edward. Never had she been so happy. She had known Edward since they were children, growing up together in the same castle. She had always known that this day would come. One day, Edward would become king and she had lived her young life ensuring that she would be fit to become his Queen.
As they approached, The priest held out his arms in welcome, his palms facing upwards. The minstrels and all the crowd fell silent as he spoke.
“How old is the Bride and Groom?” he asked.
Edward's best man answered.
“Are the Bride and Groom related by marriage?” the priest continued, to which a negative answer was given.
He then turned to Æthelhelm.
“Does the Bride's father permit the marriage?”
Æthelhelm nodded and replied, “I do.”
The priest then asked,
“Were the bans published properly?”
“They were,” Æthelhelm replied.
Finally, he turned back to the young couple.
“Do you both consent to this marriage?” he asked.
Simultaneously, both Edward and Ædith replied, “I do.”
With the questions answered satisfactorily, Æthelhelm guided his daughter to stand before the priest. Edward's best man did the same with him.
Edward then spoke, facing his bride. His vows were brief.
“I, Edward, Philip, William, do take thee, Ædith, Elspeth, Margaret, for my bride, to have and to hold, whether fair or foul, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
After giving a short homily about the sanctity of marriage, the priest blessed the ring and handed it to Edward.
Ædith held out her hand with her fingers outspread, her hand trembling slightly. Edward slipped the shining gold band over her forefinger.
“In the name of the Father...” he announced and then removed it before slipping it over her middle finger.
“And of the son...” he continued, before again removing it and slipping it onto her third finger.
“And of the Holy Spirit. With this ring, I thee wed.”
This time, the ring remained in place.
Ædith felt as though her heart would burst from her bosom, such was the joy she felt at that moment. Almost unnoticed by her, the priest turned and pushed open the massive doors and ushered the bride and groom inside. The Best Man, her father, and their attendants followed. Behind, the rest of the guests filtered into the many rows of pews to witness the Mass to bless their union.
Ædith and Edward knelt before the Altar whilst their attendants held a canopy above them. By the time the priest had concluded the service, Ædith's back and knees were aching but, she thought, it was all worth it.
That night, after all the feasting and merrymaking, Ædith was exhausted, but she knew there was one more task she had to perform before she could sleep. A task that she hoped would make her new husband very happy.
She was very pleased now, that they had chosen to marry in the summer. There was no howling wind and the room was actually quite warm, regardless of the thick, cold, stone walls of the castle.
With assistance from her lady-in-waiting, she prepared herself for this momentous occasion. Since this was all new to her, she didn't really know what to expect. Ædith's mother, Lady Ælfthryth, had not survived her birth. Her father had been less than forthcoming about the details of the marital bedchamber and so, she only had her own imagination and desires to guide her.
Now naked, she lay upon the bed and waited for Edward.
She didn't have a long wait. When he appeared, he too, was naked. Again, Ædith's heart was pounding in anticipation. Without a word, her husband climbed onto the bed. She held out her arms to embrace him, but he ignored her. Roughly, he pushed her legs apart and entered her. She screamed out, the pain was unimaginable! This wasn't what she had imagined. As he ignored her pleas and pounded into her, the pain overtook her and drove out all the wonderful feelings of joy she had anticipated for this moment. A tear formed in her eye and trickled down the side of her head, finally dripping onto her pillow. More followed until a small, damp patch appeared on the coarse fabric.
Finally, having given her his seed, Edward left her to return to the feasting. Ædith was heartbroken. She sobbed herself to sleep, lying on sheets besmirched with her blood mixed with his spendings.
The following morning, Edward summoned Ædith to his chamber. Still upset and sore, she said nothing but waited to see what he had to say.
For a time, there was silence. He seemed uneasy, sitting by the fireplace, unable, or unwilling to face her.
“I'm sorry,” he said at last. “I should have stayed with you last night.”
Ædith felt a tear form. Was that all he had to say? Nothing about how much he had hurt her?
“I drank too much, I ate too much. I didn't think.”
She remained silent. Was he sorry for what he did? Did he even understand what he did?
“It will be different tonight, I promise.”
Ædith sighed to herself. Perhaps he lacked understanding as much as she did. Maybe she was being a little harsh.
That night, she lay in her bed, the room illuminated with flickering candles that created eerie shadows as they flickered. Unlike the previous evening, she was nervous, afraid even. Would he be true to his word? Would he be gentle and considerate, as she had hoped last night? It was as though a light had gone out inside her. Instead of desire, all she now felt was hope.
Soon, the door creaked open. There he stood, clad in a heavy robe which, with a smile, he let fall.
As Edward approached, Ædith felt desire once more, but mixed with trepidation. He climbed onto the bed and pulled back the blankets. For a moment he looked at her, and her heart skipped a beat. Then, he pulled her legs apart, almost as he had done the previous night. He climbed up between them.
“No! No, wait!” she pleaded, and he stopped and stared at her. His face had changed from desire to anger.
But he didn't wait. He entered her just as roughly as he had the night before, only this time he looked directly into her eyes with every thrust, oblivious or uncaring of the pain he was causing her.
At that moment, Ædith realised that the kind-hearted boy she thought she had married, was a monster!
Time passed and, inevitably, Ædith became with child. To her relief, Edward refrained from his nightly activities. In fact, now that she was carrying the future heir to the throne, at least as he saw it, she was afforded every comfort she desired.
During this time, Edward's father, the King, was killed in battle and he had assumed the throne. Much to Ædith's relief, he was away more than he was at home.
It was during one of his absences that she decided to take a walk into the forest that partially surrounded the castle. She was no stranger to the forest, in fact, she loved to walk through the trees. On summer days the sun would struggle to shine through leafy boughs. Where it did, shafts of sunlight would appear like golden rays. In the winter, the leafless branches offered little shelter from the elements and the boughs would creak in the wind. Whatever the season, the forest always felt a friendly place, as though it, or something, was watching over her. She was never afraid there.
As she walked, she kicked her feet through the golden leaves that had fallen. Autumn was here, and she could only marvel at the wondrous hues of the various trees.
Suddenly, she stopped and listened intently. Had she imagined it, the crack of a twig maybe? Was someone there, hiding?
Nothing. Just the sound of the wind gently blowing the tops of the trees. There it was again, a thud!
Ædith smiled. Of course, acorns. They always fall at this time of the year.
She sighed and put her hand on her belly. At six months, her shape was invisible under her cloak but she could feel him growing. Deep inside her, she knew he would be a healthy boy.
She resumed her walk, again dragging her feet through the thick carpet of leaves. She loved the sound as they rustled.
Again, she stopped but the rustling didn't, not immediately. She looked around but there was nothing, no-one, that she could see.
As she turned, there appeared an old man. He must have been hidden by the trees.
“Why are you following me,” Ædith asked, although she still was not afraid. This wizened old man didn't feel in the least bit threatening. In fact, even in her condition, she had no doubt that she could defend herself against an old man who needed the support of a stick. “Should I fear you?”
The old man smiled.
“No, but maybe, yes. I am Waldigan, at your service.” He took off the green cap he was wearing and bowed low. Ædith thought he seemed very agile for one who appeared so old.
“Should I know you?”
Waldigan laughed. It seemed as though every leaf in the forest rustled with his amusement.
“Oh, no, My Lady, but I know you. I have seen you walk through these trees ever since you were able to walk alone. I have watched you grow from a small acorn into the beautiful woman you now are. You have always been so happy, but now you are not. Does the child you carry not please you?”
Ædith was surprised,
“Yes, he pleases me very much. My husband will be so happy that he will have an heir to his kingdom.”
“Why do you say 'he'? How would you know whether the child will be a boy or a girl?”
Ædith was taken aback.
“I can feel it,” she replied. “I know it will be a son for Edward.”
“And if it isn't? What then?”
For the first time, Ædith considered the consequences of not bearing a son for her husband.
“I... I don't know.”
The forest seemed to fall silent as Waldigan continued.
“You asked me if you should fear me. I told you, maybe. You should heed carefully what I am about to tell you. That a child of yours will be heir to the throne, I cannot say, but your firstborn will be a queen, just like her mother.”
Ædith's blood ran cold. If she didn't produce a boy, Edward would be furious!
Suddenly, she felt a wave of anger rising inside of her.
“How dare you!” she exclaimed. “How would you know what my baby will be? How dare you tell me such a thing?”
Her words echoed through the trees which swayed as though a sudden gust of wind had blown them but, no, the air was still. Moreover, she was alone!
It was midwinter when her baby finally arrived. It wasn't an easy birth. Ædith screamed out in pain until she felt she could take no more. Even the wind, howling around the castle, and the roar of the burning logs in the great fireplace could not disguise her anguish. It seemed an eternity but soon, the screams subsided and were replaced by the tremulous, plaintive crying of a newborn.
The nurses and midwives all busied themselves, cleaning and soothing both mother and child.
Ædith couldn't wait and had to ask.
“Is he alright?” she asked. “Healthy and strong?”
“Healthy and strong, Your Majesty? Yes, indeed.”
Something in the way the midwife spoke worried her.
“Are you sure?” she pressed. “Is something wrong? Tell me, now!”
The Midwife seemed hesitant.
“No, nothing is wrong...” her voice was quiet but she continued when she saw the fear in the Queen's eyes. “The baby is healthy and strong but it is not a 'he'. The baby is a girl.”
With that, she placed the tiny bundle in Ædith's arms. To her, of course, it didn't matter. She would love the child unconditionally, but Edward? Recently, as the pregnancy progressed, he had become more attentive, and even now, she knew he would be waiting to see his son.
“Make the announcement,” she told the midwife, and then, with a low hiss, “but do not tell him it is a girl!”
Just moments after the midwife left, Edward appeared. He seemed happy and excited.
He went straight to the bed and kissed his wife then looked at the baby, who was now quiet and sucking on her fist.
“The midwife tells me all is well.”
“Yes, we are both well. I just need to rest and Æthelwyne will need a feed before we sleep.”
Edward stepped back and seemed to grow in stature.
“What?” he hissed. Without another word, he grabbed the bundle from his wife's arms and opened the swaddle. His anger was palpable. None too gently, he returned the innocent child to her mother and stormed from the room.
Within a few days, Edward resumed his nocturnal conjugal activities. If Ædith had expected him to be more gentle, or give her time to fully heal, she was to be wrong on both counts. If anything, he was worse, even more violent in his actions with her. The first time he left her weeping in pain and bleeding. She tried to explain that if he didn't give her time, the chances of him begetting an heir would be greatly diminished. He ignored her protestations.
In due time, however, Ædith did fall pregnant with another child, and this time, it was to be a boy, just as Edward desired.
Summer soon arrived and it was beautiful. Ædith was happy as she walked through the forest. The sun shone brightly through the boughs, illuminating the dust and pollen that hung in the air.
From the periphery of her vision, she saw movement, something fluttering through the trees. She turned, but it was gone.
A beautiful butterfly, or perhaps a dragonfly, she thought.
Just then, an almost imperceptible breeze rustled the trees. She could have sworn they were whispering her name, Ædith. She smiled inwardly. Wouldn't it be lovely if the trees were looking after her?
“Listen Æthelwyne,” she looked down at the bright-eyed baby she carried in her arms. “The trees are calling to us!” Laughing aloud, she dismissed the idea and walked on.
They didn't stay long, and when Ædith began to walk back towards the castle, she stopped.
The wizened old man had, as before, appeared from nowhere.
“Greetings, Your Majesty!” again, removing his green felt hat and bowing low with an exaggerated sweep of his arm.
“You have no need to greet me so, Waldigan,” Ædith smiled. “A simple, Good afternoon, would suffice.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty,” he agreed. “I am happy to see you so well.”
“And I you, Waldigan, but how do you always know when I am here?”
“There are no secrets from me in the forest. In fact, I see that you are happily with child, and this time the boy that you so crave.”
Instead of shouting, Ædith smiled.
“How do you know that?” she asked, but Waldigan was gone.
Another breeze set the leaves rustling and, as though in her mind, she heard the words he had uttered the previous summer.
“Your firstborn will become Queen...”
That night, at supper, Ædith began to feel unwell. It began as a dull ache in her back and she felt hot, even though no fire was lit in the Great Hall. As before, Edward had become attentive to her every need, watching her like a hawk. He saw her shift uneasily in her chair and only pick at her food.
“Are you unwell, My Love?” he asked her.
Ædith stared at the plate.
“Just tired, I think. I will go and rest. Tomorrow will be better.”
He stood, helped her to her feet, and watched her walk slowly toward the door.
In the night, after several hours of trying to make herself comfortable, she screamed out. The pain in her abdomen was unbearable. She pushed off the bed covers, which had felt like a great weight upon her. To her horror, the bedlinen was bright red, soaked with blood!
From the next room, her lady-in-waiting dashed in. She didn't have to speak, the situation was obvious to her, and she turned and ran to fetch the midwives.
The sight that befell them when they entered was shocking. Ædith was lying on her back, on the bed, knees drawn up. She was screaming in agony and drenched with perspiration.
“My baby!” she repeated, over and over.
There was no doubt in their minds, the baby was coming, but much, much too soon, and there was nothing they could do.
Throughout the rest of the night, the midwives did all that they could to ease her pain and, at first light, the child arrived. It didn't cry, it couldn't cry. There was no breath and no heartbeat.
Ædith was inconsolable. Aside from the grief of losing her child, Edward would be inconsolable! She thought he was bad after Æthelwyne was born but, the midwives having informed her that this child was a boy, she couldn't begin to imagine the level of his ire.
It seemed that Ædith was cursed to never conceive a healthy son. In the years that followed, another two healthy daughters arrived, two more stillborn sons, and a further, weak son who lived only a few months before succumbing to his ailments.
Edward began to take his pleasure elsewhere, much to Ædith's relief. She had suffered much at the hands of her monstrous husband, but she remained faithful to him. The happy times they shared growing up together had become but a faint memory of a distant past.
Although only Forty-five years of age, she felt much older than her years. The stress of her many pregnancies had taken its toll on her. Her daughter, Æthelwyne, however, had grown strong. Now twenty-five, she had watched and learned much as she grew. No man, be he a king or otherwise, would ever treat her the way her father had treated her mother.
One sunny autumn afternoon, Æthelwyne and her mother were taking one of their regular walks through the forest. The floor was littered with golden leaves, but the sky was grey and the air dank and cool. Kicking the leaves as they walked, Æthelwyne suddenly stopped and grabbed her mother's arm. She threw back her cloak and drew the sword that she carried at her side. The shining blade flashed as it left its scabbard. Ædith smiled and stayed her daughter's arm.
“Don't worry, it is only Waldigan.”
They both turned and, sure enough, the old man was there, bowing low as always.
He looked at Æthelwyne. “Now, now, Princess, you are in no danger here.”
Æthelwyne slowly sheathed her sword, doubt still showing in her eyes.
Maintaining her steely glare at him, she asked,
“Who is this old man, Mother? How does he know us?”
Ædith also looked at Waldigan as she replied.
“I don't really know, but I am sure that he means no harm. I have been aware of him for many years.”
“On the contrary, My Lady. I only wish to keep you safe. Do you remember what I told you the first time I revealed myself to you?”
Waldigan briefly danced a jig.
“Well, that time has come.”
The trees then rustled as the wind picked up. Æthelwyne became afraid, and half drew her sword, looking up to the trees. She seemed to hear voices calling her name.
“Æthelwyne... Ædith... Æthelwyne...”
When she looked back, Waldigan was gone but in her head, she seemed to hear a high-pitched chuckle.
Ædith had heard it too.
“Come on, Æthelwyne. The forest is a strange place, but I have always felt safe here. Now it is time to go home.”
Upon their return to the castle, a sense of disquiet greeted them. In the great hall, a group of elders was huddled together in one of the darker recesses. Almost immediately, one of them separated himself and walked quickly to them. Ædith greeted him.
“Father! What is going on?”
Æthelhelm, now an old man, seemed grim.
“Edward is dead!” he told her. “Killed during the battle in Northumberland. The battle was not lost, but he was fatally wounded. His body is being brought back as we speak.”
Ædith was torn. She didn't know what to feel. Relief? Certainly, but sadness too. It was true that Edward had become a monster who treated her with contempt, but he was also the only man she had known. Suddenly, she remembered the words of Waldigan, the time has come!
“Father! That means...”
Æthelhelm nodded gravely, “Yes, Æthelwyne is now Queen. That may not be good news. The Dukes will want a king and will do all they can to find one.” He turned to his Granddaughter. “You will have to be crowned by the laws of succession, but your position will be precarious.”
“I know, Grandfather,” she said. “I have always known. Mother and I have worked for years to prepare for this moment. We have our allies and we know who our enemies are.”
The coronation passed without trouble. The common people seemed genuinely pleased to see Æthelwyne crowned as their Queen.
As for her mother, Ædith seemed to find new strength, but just five years on, she knew that her time was near and took one last walk through the forest with her daughter to support her.
The ground beneath their feet was soft and damp and the dead leaves were turning to mush and made little or no sound.
The wind blew the trees but all they heard was the creaking of branches and the rustling of the few remaining leaves before the onset of winter.
Ædith shivered and her daughter gently tugged at her arm.
“Come, Mother. Let's go back to the warmth.”
“In a moment.”
They were standing in a small clearing where Waldigan had appeared to them.
“When my time comes,” she said, looking up at the trees, “This is where I want to be buried.”
Æthelwyne was quick to object.
“But Mother! Won't you be buried with Father in the Abbey, as his Queen?”
Ædith shook her head, still looking up.
“I have always felt safe here, and here is where I will be laid to rest. Make an effigy of me for the Abbey if you wish, but lay me to rest just here.”
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew the trees,
©2023 Anna Morgan. Reproduction in any form without the express permission of the author is strictly forbidden.