Just past matins, December 15th, 1001,
Londonburh, Royal residence of King Aethelred II of Wessex
Aethelstan awoke suddenly; the hairs on his neck prickled as chills raced over his body. He lay still, his muscles tense, hearing the voice of his teacher and guardian, Harold, echo in his head, “Do not be rash. Wait. Watch. Listen, then act”.
The faint, yet familiar, pop and crackle from still warm embers in his clay hearth did nothing to dispel the sense of something amiss. A quiet sniff brought nothing but the scent of winter’s normal mustiness and a whiff of burning coals. It wasn’t immediately apparent how close to dawn it was. There was no illumination from his hearth, telling him that the fuel had burned long enough to be mostly ash. He was enveloped in a heavy, profound, darkness. Finally his eyes detected a faint glow emanating from behind the tapestry covering his shuttered casement.
With a sigh he quietly peeled his wool blankets to one side while pushing up to sit, sliding his legs over the side of the bed. Finally, from his new angle, he could see the muted glow of the coals in the clay hearth.
The leather grip of his seax, from his bedside table, felt comforting in his hand as his feet came down on the cold, wooden, floorboards, and he settled into a defensive posture. It seemed preposterous that someone would be here to attack him, but he felt threatened somehow. A frown creased his features as he padded forward, cat-quiet, naturally avoiding the squeaky floorboard. The room was small enough that it took only a few steps to bring him to the outer wall, opposite the foot of his bed.
Aethelstan stopped at the thick woolen tapestry that covered the window this time of year, a final gift from his father’s mother before she died last winter. An ache of sadness clutched his heart over the loss of his beloved Ealdemoder. Gone for nearly a year and he still could be brought to tears knowing he would never see her again. He let his hand slide down over the embroidered fabric, feeling the scene that he knew by heart, even in the dark; King Offa of Mercia standing at the dyke he’d built to guard against the Britons, holding aloft his mighty sword. It didn’t matter to him that such a scene had almost certainly never really happened. It was a representation of the line Offa held against savage invasion. A line he wished his father would hold more strongly.
With a final sigh, he gently pulled it back to listen at the shutters. There was no sound, only a strange greenish-blue light filtering around the edges of the shutter, along with the cool draft of winter. Chest trembling, brows tight, he braced himself for the cold and softly opened the far shutter to peer out.
Aethelstan’s stomach knotted and chills raced down his back, though not from the cold. The city was blanketed in a thick cloak of undulating mist. He knew Lundunburh well, had seen fog here many times before, but never like this. Even in the worst of fogs past he had been able to see an outline of St. Paul’s Cathedral bell tower to the south, which should have been his view through the partially opened shutter. The impenetrable murk blocked his view of the church, about three hundred yards away, completely. He shifted slowly forward, pushing the shutter further open, until he looked straight west. No more than thirty yards away stood the main outer wall of the burh, but it too was completely shrouded in the mists. Even the stars and the sliver of the waning moon, that he should have seen in the sky, were masked by the unnatural mists. He could barely see the cobble road barely twenty-five feet below.
More frightening still, was the thick coils of an even more dense fog that lay, shifting, over the ground below him like rope scattered on the deck of a rolling ship. Only this rope was a foot thick and glowed with countless blue-green lights floating along its length like willowisps. Their strangeness filled him with horror. Overwhelmed, the youth gaped, unable to move. Time passed, unnoticed, as his eyes tracked the lights flowing along the ropes of fog, unable to look away.
Indistinct shouts of men pulled him from his disquiet, to see that he had moved without realizing it. He bit back a curse to see that he was leaning out the now fully opened window without having noticed or intending to. Soon more voices added to the growing cacophony, and yet all of it seemed distant, unfocused. None sounded clear or distinct as if the fog itself were swallowing the sounds of the great city. He could hear confusion and anger, but no clash of steel to indicate battle. Then, close by and behind him, came the sound of heavy boots pounding up the stairs, the jingle of mail and clatter of weapons. The door burst open, brightening the room with a warm light.
“Aetheling!” Harold, his mentor and guardian, hissed in a loud tone, but one that would not carry outside the room. “Aethelstan! Where…?”
“I’m here Harold,” Aethelstan said, pushing the tapestry aside. “I’m already awake. What is that marsh muck out there?”
Harold, a broad shouldered man with a thick greying brown beard, but not a single hair on his head, wore a full set of mail with axe and sword hanging from his belt. He held a lighted candle lamp in his left hand. His right gripped the heavy fighting seax stuck through his belt.
“Oh thank the Virgin,” Harold exclaimed. “When I saw your bed empty I thought the elves might have come to take you away in the night.”
Aethelstan frowned, wondering if his mentor really believed that an elf might have taken him away. Harold continued as he came a step closer.
“I was on duty when this… fog swept in. One moment the sky was clear, and the next, this thick mist covered everything. I’ve never seen anything like it. Have you?”
“No,” Aethelstan replied. He closed the shutter and emerged fully from behind the tapestry.
“Oh… Well…,” Harold’s features creased with worry. “Your father, the Cyning, has been roused from his bed. He ordered that I wake you and assist you in waking your brothers. Get what you need to travel. The Cyning doesn’t feel safe in the palace. He wants all of you children moved to the fort while… uh, this… is going on.”
“Good, let’s go,” the young Aetheling replied.
Aethelstan was in his sleeping linens and woolens, but they would have to do. He didn’t want to take the time to change. He cinched a belt about his waist and tucked in the seax. It took him only a few more moments to grab his padded practice tunic, yank on his old leather boots, and snatch up his sword belt with his most prized possession, the sword of King Offa. Father had gifted it to him this past summer in honor of his fifteenth year.
Ecbert, two years younger than he, was in the next room down the hall. When they walked in, Aethelstan’s little brother was sitting up in his bed still blearily rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Oh good, you’re awake already,” Aethelstan said. “Get up and get dressed.”
“What’s happening?” the boy asked. Pushing back the thick wool blankets he emerged from the warmth of his bed. “Are we in danger?”
“Explanations later. Father wants us all down in the Hall. Grab your gear.”
Aethelstan said the last with a grin. He knew that Ecbert loved fighting as much as he did. If he wanted to get the younger boy up, the best way to do it was with veiled promises of battle. Ecbert leaped from the bed and snatched up his sword which was predictably leaning up against the bedframe. It took the boy only a few more seconds to grab his gambeson. Then he was following them out of the room, pulling it over his head as he went.
“Are the Danes attacking, Harold?” the boy’s muffled voice could be heard through his clothing. Unable, momentarily, to see where he was going the boy bounced off of the door frame with a thud and stumbled a bit before continuing as if nothing had happened.
“No, Aetheling,” the big man answered, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “Best to let your father tell you.”
Edmund and Eadrid shared the last room in the hallway. Neither had yet grown hair anywhere but their heads so they were still considered children, especially by their older brothers. Children or no, both of them were already up and standing at the window with the shutter wide open and the heavy drapes pulled back.
“There you are my little brothers,” Athelstan said with a smile, as if nothing were odd or strange about what they saw out the casement, hoping they would read his demeanor as reassuring. “Father wants us downstairs. Get yourselves dressed warm and we’ll be off.”
Ecbert was seemingly unaware of his big brother’s attempts to keep their younger brother’s calm. The sights outside the casement were so unique, Aethelstan could hardly be mad when his younger brothers jaw dropped open and he staggered to the casement pointing outside as if no one else had seen what he was looking at yet.
“What? What? What…?” he stuttered, finally leaning against the shutter. He seemed unable to stand on his own for the moment.
“It’s spirits Ecky,” sickly Eadrid said with an eager gleam in his eye. The normal wheeze in his voice was pronounced now. There was a snort of derision from the much more serious Edmund. “I bet they’ve come to punish all of the bad children for Christmas.”
“If that were true they’d have already grabbed you Eddy,” Aethelstan replied, ruffling Eadrid’s hair. He took both little boys by the shoulder, turned them, and pushed them away from the casement. Harold had already pulled out a pair of heavy woolen robes for them. Aethelstan wondered at the ability of little boys to ignore discomfort at times. They’d only been dressed in their sleeping linens and should have been chilled to the bone with both shutters open all the way. He wondered if he’d ever been so unaware. “Now get dressed so we can go down to Father.”
When he’d turned back to Ecbert at the window, his younger brother was still standing there staring outward with a stunned look on his face. Aethelstan stepped up beside him and carefully, so as not to startle him, placed a hand on his shoulder. Ecbert twitched but otherwise remained still.
“What is it Stan? It’s not natural.”
“How should I know?” Aethelstan snorted. “I’ve never seen anything like it before either. All I do know is that Father wants us downstairs. Harold says we’re heading to the Crepelgate Fort until we know more. Father doesn’t feel we’re safe enough here in the palace.” He paused for a moment. “Listen to it. I can hear the shouting from down in the city already.”
The city was hushed. There was no rush of wind against the building and no sound of breeze through the leafless trees nearby. The world outside was completely still. The only sound at all came from men. As before, Aethelstan heard muffled voices, but no clear words. Just then something changed about the sounds coming up from below in the mists. Confusion had turned to dismay, and fear. Aethelstan’s brows furrowed and he tilted his head to the side, trying to hear a little better.
“What is that Stan? Something’s different of a sudden.”
“I hear fighting,” he replied, then turned back into the room. “We better get downstairs. You boys ready yet?”
Eadrid and Edmund were fully robed, with extra hooded cloaks as well. Better dressed for the cold than either of their older brothers, yet now their teeth were chattering. Harold was already herding them toward the door with a bemused shake of his head.
“Come on Ecbert,” Aethelstan urged. “We don’t want to miss our chance to be shuffled away to safety.” He rolled his eyes and grinned conspiratorially.
Lundunburh- Old English name for the walled city of London.
seax- (Old English) Knife. Used in reference to small kitchen knives all the way up to long blades that might otherwise be called a sword.
Ealdemoder- (Old English) Grandmother.
burh- (Old English) Fortified town. Often a walled city.
Aetheling- (Old English) Title for any child of the King. Used as a last name.
gambeson- (Old French) Thickly padded jacket worn under armor.
Crepelgate- Northwestern gate to the town of Lundunburh. Location of a large fortress.