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A Duality of Gold and Shadows

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Despite his mother and father’s desperate (but well-meant) efforts to rid Edward’s world of sin and sickness, he fell ill for the second time in his life when he was six. Doctors were shipped in from god knows where, priests arrived at all hours of the day, and the entirety of Wessex was instructed to pray, pray, and pray, and pray for their little prince.

With one hand held in the clammy palms of his mother, and the other tangled helplessly in the nursery bed sheets, Edward drifted off to sleep. Maybe it was the fever unlocking the memories of the nearly fatal cough that plagued his infantry, or maybe it was the bundles and concoctions of herbs shoved down his throat somehow replicating the potions of pagan lore, but something was unlocked in the child Edward’s mind. The dreams came.

 


 

He did not heal, much to the dismay of his mother and father. He drifted for months afterwards in a state halfway between life and death. His body recovered quickly, but his mind waxed and waned without any discernible cycle. One moment he would be listening attentively to his sister reading at the foot of his bed, the next his eyes would stare lifeless at the cold stone castle walls.

And although he did not remain completely in the world of the living, neither did his soul pass into the realms of the dead. He existed in-between. In-between death and life, in-between the world and the beyond, in-between yesterday and tomorrow, almost alone in a place where few could go. In those dreams there was a woman, with robes of dark mist, and grey eyes which saw through men and demons alike. No one had ever dared mention her name in his presence before, but Edward knew her to be Iseult, the woman who had saved his life.

Edward and Iseult walked together through the past, and present, and future. She taught him what she knew, and what she knew to be within her power. Whatever was once hers was now his and she would no leave until he knew all she could teach.

 


 

The days of his illness and strange blank spells were lost to the past by his eighth birthday. Despite it all, his mother never quite recovered. Her love created a box with more walls than air to breath.

He was not allowed to play outside too long, or go to new places, for fear that he would become ill. He was not allowed to do more than watch his sister during sword lessons, for fear he would be hurt. He was not allowed to study for long hours, for fear the strain would put too much stress on his delicate mind.

Edward hated being called delicate, but he was not like his parents, he knew that much.

He possessed a certain innocence, a certain gentleness of behavior (as father Beocca had once described it) which most certainly did not come from his mother or his father. On the other hand, he could not walk two feet into the king’s court without hearing talk of Æthelflæd’s brilliance; how clever she was, how well-informed she was, how much like her mother she was, how much like her father she was, and, Edward’s favorite, how much of a right shame it was that she hadn’t been born a son.

If Iseult, who always came in his dreams (she had left a shard of her soul in him a long time ago in the marshes and on a battlefield), sensed what he felt, then she was silent in her guilt.

 


 

The ability to view the future was a bit like the ability to walk; difficult in the beginning, but quite easy with a bit of time and practice. Gone were the days of Edward’s near comas. Instead, he used his gifts while awake. He simply shut his eyes of a mere moment in order to avoid his teachers, or to escape from the kitchens with his sister, their arms full of fresh meat pies, or other meaningless activities of the same nature.

He had been raised a devout Christian (may his mother tie him into a sack full of the heaviest stones and throw him into the river if he should stray) and so, while he knew how to do most of the sorcery Iseult had once known, Edward stoutly refused. Such rituals were pagan and godless.

Visions of the future, however, were just visions.

 


 

When he was 14, Edward made a friend in the form of Bryce, son of Aldin, one of his father’s trusted swordsmen. He had dirty red hair, near billions of freckles, and on odd space between his two front teeth where his tongue occasionally peeked through.

Edward had been seeing him in his dreams for weeks before their first meeting, and rightfully assumed this meant their paths would be entwined.

It was Bryce who first gave him a ratty old cloak and pulled him into an alehouse. It was Bryce who helped him skip summer lessons to swim in the river. It was Bryce who snuck him out through the window to lay on the hilltops where they would spend whole nights with their arms pressed flush, naming all the stars they could see. And it was Bryce who Edward first fell completely, and utterly in love with. Not that either of them noticed.

 


 

In the first dream in which Iseult did not appear beside him in some semblance of a corporeal form, Edward learned of an upcoming battle. More importantly, he learned of Bryce marching head first into said battle.

He woke with a start (for such detailed dreaming could only happen in true sleep) and was struck by a crushing, damning sensation.

Helplessness, which was not a fitting emotion for a king feel.

The thoughts of his pagan foremother spiraled in frantic loops throughout his head. Guttural chants, ground herbs, burning hair melded into a complex ritual of protection that could not be described as anything but pagan . The future king of all of England could not be helpless, but he could not be pagan either.

With hands shaking and eyes alight with burning mania, Edward turned his pen on parchment, and drew the lines and symbols of a shield ritual, a Christian spell of pagan origins, the first of its kind.

The spell, a tiny folded piece of paper remained on his desk, untouched and unused, when Edward bid his final goodbye to Bryce three mornings later.

 


 

The nights that followed were the worst of Edward’s life.

If he were to write his own great chronicle, detailing his own thoughts and feelings, and the moments in his life where he was weakest and where he was strongest (a chronicle that would be very unlike the chronicles his father urged him to create as gifts for the future, full empty memories of his glories and victories), he would describe them as the worst of his life.

His mother, beyond fearing for his life, sent Father Beocca to his bedside time and time again, to administer his Christian last rights over and over.

His dreams became uncontrollable, with all the tumultuous, evil power of a storm at sea. Bright colors whirled him about, the bright green fields, the smooth chestnut brown of a stallion’s flank, the harsh glint of polished mail, the dark ruby of blood bathing the land in droves.

Occasionally Edward would spy a glimpse of Iseult amidst the torrent, her eyes wide with terror and determination. She would beckon, and he would reach, but she’d be lost once more in the blaze of horrible color.

Æthelflæd spoke to him of those days years later, when they were much older, and considered to be wiser. It was terrifying, she remembered, more terrifying than his long childhood comas, because then she could look into his eyes, and see nothing, no trace of Edward. When Bryce went to war, she said, she looked into his eyes and saw Edward desperately struggling to disappear like he had as a child.

 


 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg was a simple constant in the lives of Edward and the other occupants of Winchester Castle. Although he had never been introduced, and he’d only seen the man once from peering around a corner like a spy (no one would allow him any closer, for rightful fear of his mother), Edward’s father said more than enough to give his son a decent idea of Uhtred’s character.

The first time he accompanied his father to Coccham, the lands Uhtred lorded over, he was filled with an odd combination of anxiousness and anticipation. When they arrived, however, the Lord Uhtred paid very little attention to Edward, and spent the majority of their visit arguing half heartedly with Edward’s father.

It was a bit disheartening, very disappointing, and not in the slightest bit surprising.

 


 

As time went on, Iseult withdrew from his dreams. She never aged a day, but her eyes (which were already unaccustomed to focusing on the present) seemed to always be staring into something even Edward, with all his gifts of sight and vision, couldn’t see. He’d look at her, and half expect her visage to be that of an aging matron, with streaks of silver through her curls and wrinkles creasing the edges of her face.

But regardless of what Edward expected, her body never traded its delicate slimness for the strong curves of middle-age, and her hair continued to remain full of brown, soft curls hanging just below her shoulder blades, no matter how many years passed.

 


 

The Lord Uhtred had a wife named Gisela, who was beautiful and strong, and a suspected pagan, according to the whispers among the Ealdorman (the strange oddity among their ranks that was Uhtred Ragnarson was ever the favorite gossip of Wessex’s ealdorman and lords). Uhtred had once killed a priest in her name, if a slightly drunk Steapa was to be believed.

To the surprise of really no one, Edward’s mother despised the Lady Gisela.

Still, Edward found he adored her just a little. The Lady found him tolerable at the very least, likeable enough to request his help with the household chores whenever Uhtred and Edward’s father got into the rhythm of their squabbling and completely forgot he existed.

He would help her with dinner sometimes, even though he was adept at watching the bread in the oven and nothing else. She would spin pretty melodies over her cooking pots in tongues he had never heard, and then, once she’d finished with those, she start on church hymns with only half remembered lyrics.

One of Uhtred’s followers, a young monk named Osferth, who was only a year or two older than Edward and seemed to be the Lady’s designated helper, always remained in the kitchen to chop vegetables alongside the Lady. He never spared a glance or said a word to Edward, only lending his voice to the monkish chanting lines complimentary the Lady Gisela’s soprano worship hymns.

Edward did not mind Osferth’s presence nor his silence. He saw the young monk-warrior in his more fragmented dreams every so often. Their paths would come together eventually. But there was no need for that to happen quite yet.

 


 

One night when Edward was barely into the blooming years of his adulthood, he dreamed of a crowded marketplace full of peasants yelling and screaming, trading their goods, and going about their business with all the violent livelihood his father both despised and considered necessary.

Children ran about, dirt smeared on their faces, ignoring the calls of their parents. Girls nearing the end of their childhood sang brightly with contented joy, tucking flowers into their clothes and hair. Someone was playing a tinny ditty on a flute, at the expense of an older couple who were dancing without care before the player, nostalgia lacing their footwork. It wasn’t a scene Edward had observed the like of before.

Iseult, a silent sentinel behind his shoulder directed his attention to a girl nearly of marriageable age, a mirage of clear, beautiful skin, and eyes that glimmered like the sun on a river. In her loose blond hair she wore a crown of flowers.

 


 

Over the long years of Edward’s short life, writing spells gradually transitioned from an act that felt heretical and disgusting, to something of an amusement or pastime. Every pagan enchantment Iseult learned in her life (and there were quite a few) existed in the knowledge shared between her spirit and Edward’s body. He studied her extensive knowledge and found most spells followed a specific formula; combinations of swirling marks, sources of energy, and power words.

With pen and ink, Edward drew spirals and lines (which could resemble Iseult’s tattoos if one where to look close enough). His words of power were latin incantations. He burnt his spells, or dissolved them in liquids instead of mashing plant matters. He preformed spells with all the zeal and specialty of the pagan Shadow Queen Iseult in her heyday, but kept his magic bent to the mold of Christianity.

 


 

When he married Ecgwynn, the girl of his dreams, and the woman of his heart, she wore a crown of flowers in her hair. The marriage was secret. The pastor chosen at random, as was the venue (although Edward had seen all the details many, many times in his dreams). Only Æthelflæd knew of the union.

Before the ceremony, his sister broke with tradition and summoned Edward to his bride’s room. Her hands unceremoniously dumped a scattering of blossoms into his lap. She bid him to crown Ecgwynn in the flowers, for a crown of cheap spring beauty may be the only one he’d ever be able to give her.

It would never happen, he vowed silently, plaiting Ecgwynn’s hair with skill that came from the invisible touch of Iseult’s hands, someday he would be king, and he would make her queen.

He never dreamed of whether his vow would be fulfilled. He did not try to.

 


 

Edward’s wedding night came with a certain amount of trepidation amidst the normal feelings of happiness, lust, and general nervousness. Although it had never been said to him directly, he knew Iseult’s gifts had faded with the loss of her virginity.

His worries were proved unnecessary and that night he dreamed, not of the future, but of the Shadow Queen sitting at the foot of his marital bed, as Edward lay with the sleeping Ecgwynn’s warmth a strong presence at his side. Iseult had paid the price for their sight and magic by herself, whatever deity was watching demanded nothing of Edward.

Her hand touched his forehead, and brushed down his cheek. She spoke without moving her lips. “Mo rìgh shadow,” and then she was gone.

Streaks of grey-black mud blessed Edward’s cheeks and forehead when he woke the following morn.

 


 

His sister trusted Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Stiorra trusted him. Father Beocca trusted him. His father, the king, trusted him (though Alfred wished it was otherwise). His mother, an anomaly in the family because she certainly did not trust him was entitled to her own opinions.

Edward trusted him.

He brought his family to Coccham often. He let his wife pray with Abbess Hild in the nunnery. He left his children, a tiny girl and an equally tiny boy (the tiny boy who would someday be King of all England), in the care of the wife of one of Uhtred’s loyal men, Sihtric,

The times when the Lord approached Edward of his own volition were far and few between, and always managed to surprise him, regardless of whether or not he’d foreseen it. Mainly Uhtred wished to hand off small trinkets and he did so gruffly, with an awkward gentleness that reminded Edward of his father, which wasn’t very far off, in a sense.

He’d dreamt many, many times of the night his infant self had spent at the edge of the marshes, Iseult hovering above him, her hands baptising him for the second in the mud and water of her pagan rite. Uhtred of Bebbanburg had watched the ritual in silence, as Edward’s copater , his godfather, once had, when a different, more blessed water had been poured over his head.

 


 

It was months and years before Edward ever truly wished he hadn’t been gifted with Iseult’s power and sight, and when he did, it was only for his sister.

He dreamed a long night full of horrors. He saw Æthelred’s face distorted in fits of passion, thrusting himself roughly into her limp body. He saw her rocking back in forth alone in the dark, sobbing as quietly as possible. He saw her fall to the floor, her cheek still stinging with the fresh red flush of a slap. Worst of all, he saw her years in the future, her hair more gray than brown and her eyes hard and protected, none of her beloved inner warmth shining through.

He mourned that night, his wife laying beside him gone to the world, knowing the fate of Aethelflaed, his kind, strong, overly protective, sister was set full of misery, and that he could do nothing to change it.

 


 

The spell to visit another as they slept was the most complicated thing Edward ever created. And it took two nights and a day, more parchment than he’d ever seen outside a library, and ink enough to dye an entire field a rainbow of damning color. He worked until his hands could no longer hold a pen, until the darkness beneath his eyes threatened to envelope his cheeks, and his arms were colored perpetually blue and red, then he thrust the finalized parchment in the fire.

Æthelflæd did not gain anything great from Edward’s visit, believing him to be a figment of her mind, created to give her some company in the darkness of her imprisonment. To Edward, it was a great solace to see his sister alive and well, but she spoke of a man, and Dane, called Eric, who kept her comfortable.

They sat together in the green hills of Æthelflæd’s dream mind, reminiscing of their to Coccham, and picnicking in the forests to the edge of the Lord Uhtred’s farmland.

They were happy memories, and Edward wished to seal them away in a bottle for all of forever, so they would remain bright and untainted by time’s painful march.

Although Iseult’s sight had yet to show him what was to be, the remnants of her intuition told Edward he’d never again see his sister as she was, still youthful enough to care for picnicking.

 


 

He dreamed of cold iron, and warm blood running slick away from a sword wound, the blade still protruding, still touching the hand which had thrust it. A heart stuttered to a stop, coating Æthelflæd’s hands in its draining life.

Ecgwynn had long learned she would never be privy to the contents of his dreams, but she woke him anyways, with her gentle caresses, and coaxed him back to sleep with her soft whispers.

 


 

When Uhtred of Bebbanburg held a knife to his father’s throat, Edward did not fear, not for his father.

Perhaps it was the remnants of Iseult’s deathless love, or maybe Edward’s own connection to the man, but he did not for one instant believe the warrior Uhtred capable of harming a hair on the King’s head.

His mother tucked him close to her chest, and stroked his hair, like he was a child once more, and although he resented it, he said nothing, and allowed her to do as she pleased. She whispered fretfully in his ear breathless assurances that Alfred was too great to ever be felled by the likes of the heathen.

How desperate she was to convince herself, Edward thought.

His father returned before long, his breath heaving unevenly with barely concealed wheezes and his face grayer than ash. His most trusted guards hovered close to his sides, but Alfred the Great appeared very small to Edward. Without Uhtred as his sword hand, the King seemed more alone in the world than a boat lost to the sea amidst a storm.

And the defiant tilt in his aging father’s jaw told Edward what he already knew; this was the end of an era.

 


 

In his sleep the his children were golden, beautiful, and the most perfect things Edward had ever seen. They did not cry out, or wake, even as they were bundled in dreary rags and taken from him.

At night, he clung to Ecgwynn as if every night was the last, for perhaps it was, Edward never could be sure.

 


 

Alfred the Great fell closer to death’s door before Edward (the prince, the heir, the ætheling, and the son of the king ) was anywhere near ready.

Edward refused to sleep, for he feared the instant he closed his eyes, he would see his father’s corpse, gray and cold, spread out on the white sheets of his deathbed.

Everyday, Edward sat at his private desk and scribed spells of healing and longevity and hopefulness onto faded parchment, his fingers playing with the tin bracelet gift from the Lord Uhtred.

And everyday he secretly dropped his spells into his father’s ale and watched the paper impossibly dissolve in the dark liquid, hoping beyond hoping, the shadows under his eyes growing ever longer.

 


 

Edward had discovered long ago that Iseult’s mind, her thoughts, and feelings, and emotions remained imprinted on his soul. Never did this seem as impertinent than it did standing in the courtyard of Winchester Castle, the sun piercing his gaze like daggers thrown by the very saints themselves, and Uhtred (Ragnarson? of Bebbanburg?) demanding a decision.

He knew his judgement was clouded. How could it not be? His father had just died. He was soon to be crowned king. An army marched itself to his doorstep. Father Beocca was gone. Æthelwold (the traitorous bastard ) was obviously up to something. Æthelred wanted the throne. His mother had many, many opinions. And Uhtred, of course, needed to be dealt with instantaneously.

Edward knew better than to trust his decision to his logic and emotions. He closed his eyes briefly and reached, for Iseult’s power, for his power, and saw what he needed to see.

Uhtred was Wessex’s protector, and on the orders of King Alfred the Great, he would stay.

And Edward Rex would become Edward the Elder, King of Wessex.