The fetid air in the bedchamber was a stifling mix of the sweet aroma of herbs, the greasy reek of goose-fat candles, and the stench of failing flesh. It caught in the throat of the bishop kneeling by the bed, reciting prayers for the dying man who shivered under a mound of blankets, writhing as the pains gnawed at his belly as they had done for years past. He gripped the holy man’s hand tightly, for it offered him some brief solace as it had in all the time they had known each other.
The bishop’s metronomic drone annoyed the family gathered outside, grudgingly enduring his presence. They tolerated him only because it was the man’s dying wish that he received absolution from the God he had sought to remain faithful to during the years of constant war and upheaval. Many of the things he had done would, he had no doubt, be something that God would take a dim view of. All he could hope for was that the Almighty might concede that his human servant had a just reason for his actions at the time.
The family knew the war would last for many years more. That was why they were gathered: to hear their leader’s last commands.
“I’ve moved heaven and earth to get here, yet I’m made to wait while he is closeted with that viper of a priest!”
“Edward! Your father prepares to stand before God.” The dying man’s wife rebuked her eldest son for his blasphemy.
“God is one thing, but that cleric dogs his every step even while he’s dying.”
“Have some charity, for pity’s sake,” his mother hissed.
“Charity”’ said Edward. “Charity? Try telling that to the men out there who are just waiting for him to die. They’ll ruin everything this family has worked for. You, me, all of us.”
His mother tried to remain calm and even-tempered for the sake of family unity. “Edward, this is not the time for bickering.”
“I can’t wait around here for hours,” said Edward, with ill-concealed impatience.
“You won’t have to,” murmured a voice from the corner of the room.
Edward turned to stare at the common serving-woman who had nursed his father during this illness, and many before. She had remained stubbornly loyal, refusing to be far away in case he had need of her. She knew they might not want her; but her loyalty was to her king, no one else.
Edward’s lip curled. “All the more reason for me to see him now,” he snarled.
He turned to his brothers and sisters, his determination a challenge to them.
They hung back, too shocked by the sudden deterioration in their father’s condition to do more than shuffle their feet, avoiding Edward’s gaze. It seemed that not one of them wanted to gainsay him.
Edward felt a surge of triumph. “I’ll talk to him – alone.”
His older sister, Aethelflead, unexpectedly stood her ground. “We must all be there,” she said. “It’s what father wishes.”
Edward spun around to defy her, angry that she was challenging him. She must realise that the kingship would go to him, as the eldest son: he had led the Fyrd in war; he had the trust and fealty of his father’s closest supporters.
“Keep out of this. This is about who shall rule the kingdom!”
“That’s not your decision,” Aethelflaed reminded him. “Aren’t you forgetting the Witan?”
Edward scowled. Curse her, she was right: he ignored them at his peril. They had supported his father; whoever ruled would need their backing. Being eldest son was not enough.
Aethelflaed’s eyes bored into him. “We shall be with you, brother.”
That was what he was afraid of.
Ealhswith heard the steel in her daughter’s voice. She just hoped Edward would listen for once.
At that moment the bishop came out of the bedchamber, closing the door behind him. He had heard the raised voices, but did not want the man to hear his family quarrelling about his will – or anything else. The admonishing tone in his voice silenced those who waited.
“Have you no respect – squabbling like infants at such a time? Your father makes his peace with God; you must do the same with him while there is still time.”
Ealhswith ushered her children in before her, lining them up in a row as she had always done when there was a formality to be observed, then she took her place at the other side of the bed.
Edward gagged at the smell of the bedchamber, but swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. He had to show strength if he was to convince his father that he was putting the family before himself – see, father, how I bend my knee to you as ruler and patriarch; I am here to show you that I shall continue what you have begun, so the family will thrive.
As for the most desirable prize of all… that would be his too, if he moved fast enough to crush his cousin Aethelwold’s bid for power.
Then the crown will be mine.
A fist propelled him forward. He turned and glowered at his older sister; her stony expression did little to bolster his confidence in his attempt to convince the dying man of his selflessness.
He shuffled closer to the bed.
“Edward?” The man’s faint voice barely reached his son’s ears. “There is to be no discord between you. That is my wish.”
“Yes, father,” Edward said obediently.
“You must all remain strong” – the man fought for the breath to continue – “if we are to defeat the Northmen.”
Edward marvelled that, even in his final hour, his father was determined to cement the family’s dynasty.
“My plans are all made,” said the man. “I have written them down.”
Edward looked at Aethelflaed in surprise, but her expression told him that he should have expected this – it was typical of their father to commit his last wishes to paper so that no-one could contest them. In that moment Edward knew that Aethelflaed wasn’t challenging him; she was guiding him. He felt a pang of guilt at what he hoped to gain from this, while she stood to gain nothing.
The dying man slid a vellum-bound book to his son. “Bishop Asser has a copy as well. Promise me that you will not shirk from this. Not when we have all fought for so long.”
Edward suddenly realised what his sister had known instinctively.
He doesn’t mean just us, the family; he means every man and every woman. The whole country has helped to build what those savages from the North can never destroy. His laws protect everyone, rich and poor alike. His wealth has endowed churches and abbeys, forts and strongholds. He has brought prosperity and peace to many, belief to all, and death to the invaders. Every village is linked by oaths to every other village, every burgh, and every town. Each man who lifts a sword at his command is fighting for one man’s vision of England.
This is what his father had begun and he, Edward, would strive to carry on. He glanced at Aethelflaed, silently hoping for her support; he smiled as he felt the pressure of her hand on his. He turned back to his father. “You will always be remembered for your valour and bravery in battle, father. Your courage in the face in the Northmen.”
His father turned to look at them all, then shook his head even though the movement sent lances of pain through him.
“I will be remembered for the laws I have made. My words and my books are what will last.”
He struggled to raise himself to a sitting position. “Bishop Asser has my will in his safekeeping.” He unfolded his arms to embrace each of his children in turn. “Promise your father you will not fight each other when I am dead. Keep that for the Northmen.”
His weak smile became a grimace of pain.
“I ask you to leave me in peace, now. I wish to be with Ealhswith one last time.”
Hearing their father refer to his wife by her name, and not as ‘mother’ or any of the many fond terms he reserved for her, the children filed out, leaving Ealhswith to take the thin, wasted hand of her husband in hers, while she sat on the edge of the bed, quite beyond speech, and bent to touch her lips to King Alfred’s pale forehead.