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The Saxon bride

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Winchester, Wessex. Now.



She cannot believe it when she first hears it. She would take it for a jest, but her father has never been one prone to humor, and the stern look on his face betrays nothing. She is left speechless, both before her parents and the Witan. Her mother’s lips are pressed into a thin line, the sourness of her expression tells Aethelflaed everything she needs to know.

‘’I-I thought-‘’ Calm down , she urges herself. She is Aethelflaed of Wessex and she will not stutter under the Witan’s severe gaze. She inhales deeply before speaking again. ‘’I thought I was to marry Lord Aethelred.’’

‘’You were, my lady.’’ Lord Odda intervenes, his eyes somehow pitiful. He feels sorry. “But the circumstances have drastically changed.”

Oh, they had.

Not so long ago, Mercia had been in hand of good Christian men, the borders had been relatively safe and the common people of Winchester did not fear the heathen's raids.

Now, a couple of pagan brothers called themselves the kings of Mercia, their warriors had conquered it and they ruled together. Rumors of their pagan ways had reached the ears of the king, though not before the fallen lord of Mercia had reached the steps of Winchester's castle seeking refuge.

The talks of Aethelflaed’s wedding had stopped eerily, but perhaps not surprisingly.

And now she was being told her engagement was broken.

She does not ask why-the cause is easily guessed-, or to whom she’ll be marrying now. She’ll wait until the Witan’s members resume their daily activities and she can pursue her father’s company in private to inquire on his decision.

‘’Worry not, cousin.’’ Aethelwold spoke, his amused voice breaking the silence of the hall. He did not seemed concerned for her as Lord Odda. Through his drunken gaze, he appeared to be having fun. “You are still to marry the Lord of Mercia.” His words were threaded with spite, and Aethelflaed feared their meaning. “Just not that one.”

“Aethelwold, you will remain quiet.” And thus her cousin shut his mouth, but Aethelflaed remained confused. What other Lord of Mercia could she possibly marry?

Her eyes searched for allies in the whispering crowd. Steapa wouldn't meet her eyes, keeping them down; meanwhile, Uthred pretended to be interested in the design of the ceiling. His men were not around, and Father Beocca avoided her gaze. Her mother’s expression didn't felt reassuring at all.

Finally, her father spoke again.

“Lords if you may leave us.”

They did, in seconds, the hall was was empty. Only her parents, Father Beocca and Uhtred remained, after Aethelwold had been sent away with the rest.

She found it odd, that her father would let Uhtred the Godless stay and not Lord Odda.

The quietness of the room did not prevail.

 

 


 

 

Mercia, Aethelred's former state. Two weeks earlier.



The king of Wessex must love his daughter very little or he must love his country too much. That's the first thing that came to his mind when the offer reached his ears. Erik wanted to laugh, to jest though he did neither. His brother did, however.

The hand of the king’s daughter, for a pagan no less! What a jest.

Except it wasn't.

Erik had stared, blank eyed for a few seconds, as if he were slow minded. The messenger had shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, but Erik's mind was somewhere else.

It did made sense. The pretty lord Aethelred would never recover his lands without the help of outsiders, and Alfred would not stand by the destruction of his army for the sake of a man who wasn't yet tied to his family.

Instead , he would bind his daughter and thus his precious Wessex to the current lords

While he thought about this, his brother had roared by his side. “ A viking one to strengthen his lineage!” He gave a laugh, deep from belly. He nudged Erik. “What do you think? Should I bring her here and put a pup on her belly?” His smile was sharp and his eyes dark, but Erik was used to his brother's moods, and knew that the man was in good spirits.

Who wouldn't be, after conquering all of Mercia?

“It would be wise to accept.” Erik said. “The king has only one son. Should the boy die early…” He shrugged. “Any child of the princess could be heir to the throne of Wessex and Mercia.”

Sigefrid nodded, absentmindedly. “And I'm in need of a hump.”

The messenger stared indignantly at Sigefrid, but both brothers ignored him.

Erik snorted. “The king isn't sending his daughter for you to hump her. You'll have to treat her well, or he will send a man after your cock.”

“He can't care for her that much if he offered her to us like cattle.” His eyes narrowed. “You should marry her.”

Erik froze.

He had assumed that his brother would be more than eager to be the groom, to have a pretty bride such as Aethelflaed of Wessex. If rumors were to be believed, she also had a good mind; bright as his father.

“You are the one that's always whining about needing a wife.” His brother palmed his back heartedly. “Wed her, bed her. If you grow tired of humping her you can always send her away after she gives you sons.” His brother shrugged. “Or you can hump a Dane woman too.” Sigefrid smiled widely. “I'll do it if you don't want to.”

Erik swallowed. Though it wasn’t a threat, he thought about the faceless Saxon girl that would have to marry his brother if he didn't.

Erik did love his brother, but Sigefrid had certain things that he had never felt comfortable with. Though Erik rarely voiced his concerns to him.

He did not share his love of killing for the fun of it, or the way he seemed to enjoy stretching his victims sufferings by torturing them-Erik would simply chop their heads off, a clean cut. Patience had never been one of his great virtues, the girl wouldn't fare well with him.

A Saxon wife, to Dane warlord no less, would come reluctantly. She wouldn’t be eager to share his bed, yet she would have to, for duty asked it from her. Sigefrid wouldn’t treat her well, Erik was certain of that.

Good, he was already feeling responsible for her.

Erik licked his lips, finding them dry. His eyes found the Saxon man, boy, before them.

“I will do it. Go tell your king.”

 


 

Winchester, Wessex. Now.



He had known of her curiosity, of her desire to speak with him. He had seen it in the urgency of her eyes after her father's news. But Uhtred hadn't expected her to actually summon him in private.

So there he was now, standing awkwardly in front of the princess, whose questioning look reminded him painfully of the king's. He wondered if the lady knew, or even suspected that he had taken part on the negotiations.

“What is he like?” The lady asked in a soft voice.

“Who?” He retorts, though Uhtred knows exactly who they are talking about. He is just trying to make time to form an answer.

It was probably best for her to ask him instead of Alfred, for the man would surely paint a somber picture. Damned Christians were too fond of sacrifice and suffering for the right causes, Uthred would never understand them.

Truth be told, he liked Erik Thurgilson. If he wasn't sworn to Alfred, and if his immediate loyalty wasn't to Ragnar, Uthred would have already gone to join the brothers.

Aye, Sigefrid wasn't the brightest light, but his brother was sharp and, somehow, honorable. A Dane not like many, Uthred had noticed he lacked his older brother's cruelty.

“Lord Erik,” she clarified, as if it were needed. “The man I am to marry.”

Uhtred licked his lips. “I'm not sure what you mean, lady.”

Aethelflaed fixed her gaze on him, abandoning the scrolls she was studying. “I've been reading about the Dane warlords, of their temper and lack of mercy. Of what they do to women” She took a deep breath. ‘’But I know that scrolls won’t tell history as it is, and I know my father won’t tell me things as they are.’’ She gave him a faint smile.  ‘’And I cannot ask my mother, either.’’

‘’You wil l tell me truth, Uhtred. I trust you to do it.’’

Uhtred sighed. ‘’What is it that you want to know, lady?’’

“What is he like? I know you have met him before.”

Uhtred scratched his beard. ‘’I do not know him that much, lady.’’ He shrugged. ‘’He is not the man his brother Sigefrid is.’’

Aethelflaed raised an eyebrow at him.

“And that is a good thing?” Uhtred found himself nodding.

“A great thing, lady. He is smart and doesn't kill for the fun of it.” His words didn't seem to appease her much, but then again, what else did she expect him to tell?

“He seems... honorable. ” For a Dane, it went unsaid.

“What does he look like?” She inquired.

A smile formed on Uhtred's lips. “He is not pretty Aethelred. He doubles him on mind and strength.” A snort almost escaped him, at the comparison between the two men. “He's a few years older than you, lady. Got a few scars across his face.” He shrugged. “Like a Dane. He looks like a Dane.”

Her eyes went to his beard and hair, and Uhtred could almost see her trying to conjure her husband’s to be image.

Uhtred didn't think it mattered much, at the end she would end up married to the man anyway. Her father may have asked for her consent, but they all knew it was charade. He could only hope that the younger of the Thurgilsons would be... kind to her. She deserved it.

He would have volunteered to form part of her guard, but he couldn't leave Gisela and his children waiting on him in Wessex.

Besides, the king likely wouldn't have let him. There would  be enough pagans around his daughter.

 


 

Aethelflaed did not sleep that night. She tried to pray, but her prayers felt meaningless, futiless.

Uhtred was no liar, she trusted that he had spoken the truth to her about the warlord Erik. But still, she couldn't help but fear their meeting.

The man may act a certain way around his fellow men, but she had no way of truly knowing him until she met him.

She tossed and turned around the bedding, thinking of how life would have been with Lord Aethelred.

She couldn't help but wonder of his reaction to her engagement. The Lord must have felt scorned, betrayed by his fellow saxons. Aethelflaed wouldn't blame him, she could only hope that he wouldn't try anything. Mercia had already suffered enough.

She had heard and seen (from Uhtred's lady, Gisela) that the pagan women had more agency that the Saxon ones. There was a chance that her husband would let her participate on the matters of state.

She avoided the thoughts of her marriage bed and children.

Chapter Text

Road outside of Winchester, Wessex.

 

Uhtred hadn't held any sort of hopes of attending the lady's wedding, so he was pleasantly surprised when king Alfred placed him -and by default, his men- as the leader of the party. It did made sense that he would send him, if anyone knew the Danes; it was Uhtred.

So soon enough, he found himself on a horse ahead of the multitude of carts, soldiers and else. Father Beocca, thus Thyra, and Hild had decided to join them as well. And so had, to his good fortune, his beautiful wife, Gisela. It hadn't escaped him that Gisela was spending more and more time with Aethelflaed, to displeasure of the girl's mother.

Good for her, he thought. Gisela was the one to ask when it came to marry a Dane and live like one. She couldn't have asked for a better teacher. And besides, Uhtred knew how fond she was of the lady. Of her, and all the lost children that crossed her way.

Perhaps because of that, Uhtred had allowed the young man called Osferth to join him. Well, that, and the shame that it would bring Alfred. Old habits and Leofric would have come back to haunt him if he hadn't. The kid had his good traits too. Beyond his deeply religious being, he wasn't a half bad companion to keep around.

Also, Finnan and the others liked him well enough.

His ramblings were interrupted by a conversation between father Pylrig and Osferth himself.

They boy seemed to shrink down the weight of the other’s gaze.

“It just...It seems wrong to me. I thought there was an agreement, there was prize arranged and everything”

Father Pylrig barely shrugged before answering. “There was. The pretty Lord promised certain part of his lands as payment for the Lady.” At Osferth's silence, he sighed. “Those lands aren't his anymore to give, and so the Lady isn't his to have.”

“But to give her to a Dane…” he shook his head lightly, as if the fate if the woman who wouldn't call him brother haunted him.

“I don't see the Lord of Mecia being any better. And the girl knows her duty.”

Former Lord of Mercia.” Uhtred couldn't help himself to address the state of Aethelred the Turd.

Laughter rippled through them and Uhtred went back to admire the greenlands that expanded before him.

Meanwhile, comfortable and well guarded -for only a fool would attack or try to steal from a royal party, and one greater would try to harm the princess- Aethelflaed sat across Gisela, carefully listening to what the woman was saying.

“You must not let down your guard in there, lady. This won't be the land you once knew.’’ The older woman spoke wisely. ‘’The men that reside there are not the Mercians, and some of them may oppose the idea of a Saxon woman becoming their lady.’’

She was in front of a difficult audience, Aethelflaed was amazed as how freely she spoke and how little she flinched under her mother and ladies's watchful eye.

A jar with a dark, warm brew was between them, reeking it's content smell. It twisted Aethelflaed's stomach, though some part of it could be credited to the nerves.

“We couldn't have expected more from godless pagans.” At her side, her mother fumed. She had been in a sour mood ever since her marriage had been announced and Aethelflaed had noticed the cold way she had treated her father as they had left Winchester.

To her left, one of her companions voiced her concerns about the marriage.

“Is it correct to marry a pagan while you are a christian?” It was like rubbing a sore spot, though she didn't seem to mean ill by it.

As if Aethelflaed hadn't spent the last weeks wondering the same thing.

Her other companion, a young woman, daughter of a councilman, opened her mouth to voice her own thoughts. “Not every elderman agreed with this marriage, my lady. They believe it's wrong for the king, God guide him, to give away our princess to an invader.” Then, likely realizing that what she said sounded like treason, she quickly added: “Not all of them. Not my Father.”

Gisela raised an eyebrow on her way.

“Some of those men believe me to be Aelfric of Bebbanburg's wife.” Her eyes shone somehow playfully, even with such subject. Her companion's mouth became a thin line, and she sunk back into the cushions. “Yet he has no say over me and my children are Uhtred's. So, I don't believe it matters.”

A smile formed on her lips.

“I do believe you will be happy.”

She offered back a weak smile of her own. “Thank you, lady Gisela.”

Not satisfied with this, Gisela boldly grasped Aethelflaed's hands, making the other ladies gasp. “You are a good woman, smart and pretty, and Erik Thurgilson doesn't appear to be either blind or stupid.”

The talk around her resumed, on whether it was or not was a marriage's purpose to cause happiness of all things. If it was right to enjoy oneself with a pagan. But Aethelflaed had stopped listening to them.

During their chattering, Gisela's eyes remained on hers.

Aethelflaed knew she would be allowed to keep her companions around once they reached Mercia as well a couple of guards of her own, but in that moment, she wished she could ask Gisela to stay too.

Later that night, she slipped out of her wagon when everyone was sleep. She had only intended to take a walk to clear her mind and free herself from the stifling company, when suddenly she stumbled upon Gisela, who was wrapped in a blanket and sitting next to the fire.

Not so far from them, Aethelflaed could see Uhtred's men watching them. But their presence didn't feel invasive, so she gave them a light bow before taking a place next to the woman.

Soon enough, she would find herself pouring her heart out.

“You should not worry much for what your ladies say.”

A pink blush appeared on her cheeks, and Gisela's eyes softened. The flames lightened her round face with a warm light, while the world around them remained dark.

“They meant no ill by their words, but…”

“But they come from a place of ignorance.” Gisela concluded and Aethelflaed let out a little laugh.

“I know my duties to Wessex, my father, and, once I marry him, my husband. But what if I can't-...” She shook her head and bit her lip, with a nervousness unlike her.

Finally, Aethelflaed voiced her true fears.

‘’What if I cannot love him?’’ She swallowed thickly. ‘’I do not mean to offend you, Gisela, but I cannot hope every pagan man is like Uhtred. What if he is wrong, what if Erik Thurgilson is cruel?’’

The woman before her remained silent for a while before answering. ‘’If he is cruel, do not forget that you are not alone, lady.’’ Her eyes shone with fierceness, and a warm feeling spread in Aethelflaed’s chest. ‘’Should anything happen, call for my husband, for us.’’ She squeezed her hands reassuringly, in a calming gesture. ‘’And should you fail to reach us…’’ Gisela’s eyes shone dangerously. ‘’I’ll get you a dagger before we get to Mercia.’’

Aethelflaed offered her a rare smile.

“And if I may offer a word of advice, just between us.”

“Of course.”

“Don't let him see you afraid. The Danes never fear.”

 

 


 

 

Aethelred's former state. Mercia.

 

“Would you all stop with your bloody fusing?!”

Erik cringed inwardly at his brother's roaring voice. It was too early to deal with him and his loud ways.

The night before, in one of his unfortunates bursts of generosity, Sigefrid had insisted on having a feast in his brother's honor. And every man, warrior or not, Dane or Mercian that had been nearby had joined them in celebration.

Erik had tried his best to enjoy and ignore the fact that his brother was indulging a bit much on their food and mead. Their reserves remained untouched, but the wedding was near and it promised yet another feast.

Sigefrid was becoming too trusting of the green, fertile lands they had conquered. Too much for Erik's liking.

Now that the morning had come, preparations were being made, things were being cleaned and men were being kicked out of the hall by Erik's warriors.

The Gods knew that he had kept himself from drinking to the point of oblivion. He hadn't been that tempted by the sight of their men falling on their on faces and pissing themselves unconscious. If Wessex’s party had arrived during that morning, it wouldn't have made a fine impression on his bride to see him in such deplorable state. So while he had indulged into the fights and wrestling games, he had only emptied a jar or two.

Sigefrid, unlike Erik, had taken no such considerations and was currently suffering the aftermath of his late celebration.

The fusing he was so loudly whining about stopped, and all eyes fell on Erik; who promptly told them to ignore him.

Sigefrid groaned.

“I believe I told you this would happen.”

A broken piece of something flew towards him, but it was poorly aimed and Erik didn't even move to avoid it

He rubbed the palms of his hands over his eyes. It was too early.

“Get up and go take a damned bath, they've told me the Wessex's party has been spotted.”

Sigefrid did not raise from his spot at the floor

“Why should I bathe? You're the ones who's gonna hump her.”

Erik narrowed his eyes. Sigefrid huffed, getting up.

Shaking his head as he walked out of the hall, his eyes went looking for the craftsman.

In the last weeks, he had done his best to restore some parts of the former Lord's chapel, which had been almost completely destroyed in their invasion of the place. Some benches had been placed on it, and more...christian things. Maybe the Lady would appreciate to have something like that, not that Erik understood or cared much for them

They had turned the state in a so called pagan hall. Erik liked to admire the outside of the building, to see how much they had changed it. Very little of its original look remained. They had hanged shields on its walls, taken down the crux and placed Thor's hammer on its place.

He had also tasked an artisan to fashion his bride-to-be a room of her own. Erik liked to believe that he would have someone to warm his cold feet on bed when the winter came, though in the meantime, the Lady could have one of her own.

Some mercian Lord -because they hadn't slaughtered those who had been smart enough to submit- had told him that it wasn't that common for spouses to share a bed.

He couldn't hope for too much in so little time.

His brother had laughed, as he often did in matters that did not concern him. He had mocked his younger brother for worrying so much about some Saxon woman, and had promptly told him to find himself some true Dane to please him, for the princess would be as cold to him as the winter in the land of her birth. While in the moment he had just punched his brother's shoulder, an easy laugh coming off his lips, Erik was, in fact, worried that it may be truth.

Frowning, and feeling a headache behind his eyelids, the younger Thurgilson went on.

 

 


 

 

Nearing Aethelred's former State. Two days later.

 

She had known this was coming the moment Uhtred let everyone know they were nearing their destination. Well, she had known it was coming the moment they left Winchester, but it didn't make her hate it any less.

Aethelflaed would have liked to gaze upon the eyes of the man that was to become her husband before actually marrying him.

Not even Gisela could have saved her from this. There wasn't a dagger that could cut through tradition.

Reality came down crashing over her, or rather in front of her, taking the form of a veil. A pretty veil it was, pinkish with flowers sewn into it. The perfect representation of the child she would cease to be once they handed over to her husband.

She swallowed thickly, testing the fabric between her fingers. The nun's gentle, but firm words pounded in her ears. But she wasn't Hild, Hild would have offered words of comfort.

“It's the tradition, my lady. He won't look upon you until you are sworn to each other.” The woman declared.

How lovely such things had sounded when she was younger.

She took a deep breath. This was not the Lord Aethelred of Mercia. This was a man she did not know, one her father did not know.

Over her dress, her hands toyed with the handle of the dagger that Gisela had silently given her. She didn't plan to use it, but to know that it was there gave her courage. She would have to hide it before the ceremony.

He was a man she had no reason to dread or to be afraid of.

Aethelflaed looked at herself in the mirror, Gisela's words at the back of her head.

There would be no fear in her eyes when he saw her.

Chapter Text

Aethelred's former Mercian state. Now.

The warm rays of light woke her up, her whole face slowly warming up. Aethelflaed pulled the furs tighter around her body, burying her face in the soft pillow under it. Surely she wasn't needed until later? The prospect of staying a bit longer on this comfortable, cozy place was tempting. Sloth was a sin, she would have to confess later. Where we're her ladies anyway? Usually, they were the ones to pull her from slumber.

A loud snore sounded behind her, and all of her body tensed up. The events of the night before came back to her mind, and she found herself quietly squirming away from the man sharing her bed.

Her husband .

She raised up to her elbows and pushed the hair out of her face. The braids Gisela had made for her laid messily on her back, but none of the flowers she had placed on them had survived the celebrations. Aethelflaed had attended her share of feasts, but none of them could have prepared her for the one her husband's people -now her people - had prepared for their wedding.

Said husband was lying on his stomach, his naked back slowly rising after each breath. He must have been exhausted, not quite as much as her.

Aethelflaed swallowed thickly, and turn her head to the side so she could see him better. She hadn't taken enough time to  properly look at him during the day, and in the night the darkness didn't let her see much of him. Her husband was fair skinned, much like herself, but unlike Aethelflaed, you could tell he spent his days outside. Hunting, fighting; he had a healthy blush that did not match her paleness. A thick blonde beard covered the lower half of his face. Aethelflaed remembered, with a rush of heat, how it had felt as he kissed her.

Her husband . She needed time to get used to the term, and even more time to get used to this . Some part of her was still feeling somehow ashamed of sharing a bed with a man that was mostly a stranger.

He wasn't bad looking. Erik was by no means Lord Aethelred, not exactly a maiden's dream, however, Aethelflaed found herself... attracted to him. Uhtred had been right to say he looked like a Dane, with his blond hair, blue eyes and scarred face.

As if he could feel someone watching him, Erik blinked slowly, eyes opening and mind awakening. Aethelflaed fell down in the bed, pretending to be asleep. She wasn't ready to face him after the night before. She tensed as he moved, rising to sit on the mattress against the canopy. She could sense his eyes on her, and tried her best to appear at peace. She heard him sigh, and then the covers were being pulled up to her nose, shielding her skin from the cold morning air.  

He stayed still for a while, silent. Then, Aethelflaed felt the ghost of his fingers in her hair.

The shuffling of fabric let her know that he was putting on his clothes. Her eyes remained closed tightly, she had seen enough of him the night before.

 


 

The day before

They had given her the room of a Lady. Aethelflaed couldn't know if it had been especially prepared for their arrival, or if had belonged to a woman before the brothers acquired it, but it was lovely. It reminded her of the women’s room that was back in Winchester’s castle.

Early in the morning, they had reached their destination. A young man had received the men of their party, and had directed Aethelflaed’s ladies to the room they were currently in. Heavily covered and surrounded by her women, Aethelflaed had left her wagon to be guided blindly.

She got tired of her ladies and their endless chattering before her dress was on. There was no other way to put it. As if she wasn't nervous enough, all they seemed to talk about was her wedding night. Between their giggles and double-meaning comments, the heat on her wouldn't cease to rise. Gisela sent her an amused look from her place in the cushions.

Eventually, Aethelflaed kicked them out. Though not literally, she insisted that she wanted a private talk with the lady Gisela. Her companions left on a hurry, sensing her mood.

The cold of the dagger kissed her upper thigh, and Aethelflaed wished once more to have her sword with her. The weight of it on her hands had always felt comforting.

A soft laugh escaped Gisela's lips, and Aethelflaed looked down.

“Would you like me to help you with your hair?”

It was the last thing she expected to hear, but Aethelflaed nodded anyway.

They sat in silence, as Gisela brushed strands of hair behind her ears, before tying them together in multiple braids. Gisela hummed softly to herself.

She appreciated the older woman's company, and she had a feeling that Gisela wouldn't have been allowed to be with her if her wedding had been in Wessex, and to Aethelred.

Lord Aethelred. He wasn't much of a Lord anymore, or so she had been told. Apparently, he didn't appreciate the fact that their engagement had been broke and did some very rash things; the first one being demanding her father. If Uhtred's men were to be believed, the Lord had insisted on raising Wessex's fiords to go liberate Mercia from the tyranny of the Thurgilson brothers.

In response, seeing that the man was unable to call upon his own army, and that many of the Mercia Lord's had submitted to the Dane brothers, King Alfred of Wessex had decided that it may not be on his people's best interest to help the disgraced man. After that, Aethelflaed wasn't aware of how the negotiations went, or which side started them on the first place.

She wasn't sure if she wanted to know.

Gisela's soft voice took her out of her thoughts.

“Was there something you wanted to ask me, or you just wanted them gone?”

Aethelflaed looked down at her hands, and hoped that the pink on her cheeks didn't show as much as she felt it.

“There is no shame in that, they were frankly tiring me as well.’’

Aethelflaed offered an apologetic smile, even if Gisela couldn’t see her. ‘’They are just excited for the pagan celebrations, it’s not something they would commonly see in Wessex.’’ At her back, Gisela snorted.

‘’They would not, but neither you would. What do think it’s going to happen today?’’

Aethelflaed bit her lip.

‘’We are not marrying at the chapel,’’ She began. Aethelflaed had been surprised at hearing the news from Uhtred. Her husband-to-be wished to have a proper pagan wedding in the woods, with an exchange of swords and vows. The priests that had come with the party had insisted on officiating the ceremony anyway. ‘’A priest will marry us within the Christian law...And I’m not sure of what will go on then.’’

Gisela hummed lightly.

‘’I married Uhtred in Winchester’s church. I would have liked to have a pagan wedding...Much like my parents and their parents before them.’’ She chuckled lightly, binding flowers to her hair. ‘’Your children may take after their father, and be pagans too.’’

Children.

“Maybe they will.” She conceded.

Aethelflaed fisted her hands on her lap, the subject of her wedding night had been on her mind since the announcement of her first betrothal -God forgive her-, and it had been easy enough to keep it vague, with little she knew about what would actually happen. Lord Aethelred’s plush lips and boyish face had been every maiden’s dream, and Aethelflaed hadn’t been the exception.

Yet she knew nothing of this man she was to wed. Just vague descriptions offered by Uhtred, and the promise that he was a better man than his elder brother. But nothing else, not a laugh, not a smile or a voice to associate to him.

Not that Lord Aethelred had smiled or laughed much in her presence.

She could ask Gisela. Gisela, who had three children. Who was a grown, married woman. But...The older woman knew enough of her doubts and fear, Aethelflaed still had some pride to protect.

There was a smile in Gisela's voice when she spoke.

“Are you eager for the night celebrations?”

Aethelflaed almost choked on air.

 


 

There were some perks to be moved around the kingdoms by Alfred's whims.

Uhtred rested against a wall, pleased with the sunny day and the cold air of the morning. A bright red apple on his hand, the man fixed himself a bite as he admired what had been Aethelred's state. There wasn't much mark of the Lord on it

Like he had never been there on the first place.

The surroundings reminded him vaguely of the ones back in Old Ragnar's hall. The thought sent an unexpected pain to his chest. The men and women working around, running in a hurry to set the preparations. It was much like the home he used to have.

The thought of Old Ragnar brought Brida and his brother to his mind. Were they married now, he wondered. Did they share a gaggle of blond-haired, sharp-tongued children?

He shook his head and tried to focus on his apple, rather than in the sour separation from his brother and Brida.

“I'm still not used to it myself.” A man spoke from behind. Uhtred turned to find the younger of the Thurgilsons, cleaner than ever, in what Uhtred would guess to be his best clothes, stepping into the balcony. No sword at his hips and no sly smile on his lips, like the last time he had seen him.

“So much green... And it stays green despite the seasons. Nothing like the place I grew up.” Erik shrugged, a smile gracing his lips. “It's good to see you again, Uhtred. I trust you didn't have any trouble in the roads.”

“Only a fool would attack a royal party, especially one that holds the future Lady of Mercia.”

At the mention of his bride, Erik seemed to straighten.

“How is she?”

Uhtred raised an eyebrow at the man. “The lady?” He shrugged. “Getting ready. My wife is with her.”

Erik stammered. “No, I mean, how... How is she?

Uhtred wasn't that sure of what he meant.

“Terrified, I'd guess.”

Erik swallowed, and nodded absentmindedly. “I imagine she's not very eager to marry a Dane.”

“But you are eager to marry her?”

Erik's face closed. “Marriage it's not about that.”

Strange , Uhtred thought. The Dane before him appeared to be almost nervous, why, Uhtred couldn't fantom. If anyone had the upper hand in the situation, it was him.

“My little brother has gotten cold feet?” A deep voice asked, and Uhtred and Erik turned towards the sound. Sigefrid in all his glory was right there, also in ceremonial clothes. And if it weren't for the faint redness of his eyes and the smell of wine that he carried, Uhtred would have thought he was as fine as Erik.

“Now that you have seen her you don't feel like bedding her much, ah?” Erik conceded a tight smile.

“I haven't seen her yet.”

Sigefrid frowned. “Why, what's wrong with her?”

The younger man sighed.

“Wessex's customs.”

Uhtred snorted. “More like christian customs.”

He nodded at Sigefrid. “Married my first wife like that. She was fine,  just came with a debt to the Church.”

Sigefrid laughed.

“Hopefully this one will bring no trouble, the Church is annoying as it is.”

Uhtred raised an eyebrow.

“You've got problems with the Church?”

Sigefrid smiled, it was a cold, sharp smile.

“Not anymore.”