“And I grant to Bishop Æthelwold the estate at [unidentified] and pray him that he will always intercede for my mother and for me.” Will of Ælfgifu.

Risborough, October 959

Æthelgifu stared wide-eyed at the raftered ceiling; often she would wake early and find herself unable to return to sleep, turning over in her mind all that had passed in the last three years and a half. Three and a half years, was that all – to gain and lose so much? And in those small hours she would brood upon what the weft and warp of fate yet held for her and for her children: one daughter abandoned, the other yet to be betrothed, her sons bound by oaths of loyalty to a falling star. But on this morning her heart strained under a heightened foreboding, a premonition of a doom waiting to fall upon them all.

Ælfgifu, the elder daughter, lay snuggled against her mother, the touch of flesh cloying and prickly beneath the covers, stray strands of auburn hair tickling against the matron’s cheek. Careful not to disturb the slumbering girl, Æthelgifu extricated herself, letting the younger woman’s head drop against the sloping headboard. In the chink of light breaking through the thick embroidered bed hangings she watched her daughter’s pert breasts rise and fall with the rhythm of her breath. Tenderly she ran a finger round the aureole of the closest nipple, pink against the pale freckled flesh, raising the small bud. Ælfgifu moaned softly in her sleep, responding to the familiar touch.

Æthelgifu had done all a mother could to comfort the girl: distracting her with occupations suitable for a young lady of rank, the embroidering of church vestments or playing at nine men’s morris and fox and geese; bringing in scops to fill the lengthening evenings with ancient sagas and novel riddles; soothing her daughter’s troubled mind with readings from the Gospels; satisfying the burning desires of the flesh with lips and tongue and fingers that penetrated and probed in all the her daughter’s secret places, using the nubile body in the ways it craved to be used; slaking her own ravening lust on her daughter’s need.

It was not enough. The touch for which Ælfgifu pined was that of her husband, the touch she would never be allowed to feel again, his cock never more to slide between the gratefully parted thighs and fill the welcoming cunt, where, by nature’s law, if not God’s, it belonged. And Æthelgifu? Well,if she did not hear from that bastard dishthegn soon she was going to hump a stablelad; or possibly one of his charges.

Letting her daughter sleep on, Æthelgifu parted the hangings and slid down off of the big wooden bed. Privacy was the preserve of privilege, the church frowning upon the opportunities it provided for the indulgence of sinful appetites. Æthelgifu, whose appetites were stronger than most, had her bed behind a partition of stout Baltic planking. There was a knock upon the door and she undid the mortice lock, to let in a serving wench with an ewer of steaming water. By the dim morning light filtering through the oiled vellum window, she washed her face and private parts, and, having towelled herself dry, dressed, selecting from an iron-banded chest a long blue linen tunic with tightly fitting sleeves. Over this went a broad sleeved scarlet gown in soft wool, embroidered upon the neckline and cuffs, and onto her feet she slipped shoes edged with red leather. Taking up the collection of tiny tools that hung from a ring at her belt, she plucked her eyebrows and nostril hairs, then scooped the wax out of her ears with a tiny spoon, before applying a little colour with a brush. Finally she donned a lace adorned wimple, straightening it in the lead-backed mirror so that the carefully crimped light brown curls artfully peaked out onto the forehead and temple.

She paused to admire herself. The broad brow was marred by a brace of narrow lines, and perpendicular to these stern furrows had formed above the bridge of the chiselled nose, and, yes, the skin hung a little loosely from the high cheekbones, but the beauty that had caused Edric of Washington to choose her yet remained. The once luscious mouth had grown thinner-lipped and downcurled at the corners, but she had kept the full set of even teeth, all tolerably white. The eyes had grown a little heavy lidded, but pearl grey irises continued to gleam brightly under curling lashes. The swanlike neck creased now when it turned, and creases too testified to the weight of the yet full but increasingly veined and pendulous breasts; a belly had gathered above the tapering waist and there was more meat upon the hips that had borne Edric four children. But for all the trials inflicted upon her, all the insults she had had to endure, and all the slanders, she still carried herself like the great lady she was, the widow of an ealdorman, the mother of a queen.

Wrapping herself in a marten-trimmed mantle, held together with an enamelled broach Ælfheah had given her, she passed through the bower, where the palliases of her intimate retainers had been rolled away and the ashes of the fire in the central hearth raked, and stepped out into the passage between the bower and the great hall. The bond servants, who had slept on the benches that lined the walls of the hall, were already up and about their business in brewhouse or dairy, granary or buttery, the wholesome scent of bannocks baking on the griddle wafting from the kitchen.

Æthelgifu walked across the enclosure to the bellhouse and began to climb. From the top of the tower she could look down upon the roofs of the vill clustered around the ditched and pallisaded burh, the solid homes of churls and the humbler cottages of the labourers, the manorial chapel and the mill. Her eyes swept further abroad across the stubbled fields and mown meadows, at first tracing the long western boundary of the strip of land that formed her estate, from the gore to the blackthorn hedge and along the foul brook up past the great ash and down the old dyke west of the herdsman’s shacks; then looking north to the neighbouring manors of Waldridge and Kimble and beyond to the valley of the Wye, before turning her gaze east to the Icknield Way under the wooded slopes of the Chilterns, where the chalk scar of Whiteleaf caught a glimmer of morning sun; at the old heathen burial mound the ancient trackway met the King’s Street which ran on up past Wayland’s stump to thread through the gap in the hills. Two horsemen were galloping headlong down the road; though little more than distant specks as yet, Æthelgifu recognised them with a mother’s eye.

Returning to the bower she was greeted by her younger daughter, Ælfwaru, her hair yet uncovered but the budding breasts obvious beneath the linen shift. Perhaps I should put her in Edgar’s bed, she thought, as I did Ælfgifu in his brother’s. But what was the point? The horny little toad had already bedded half the thegn’s daughters in Mercia and, perhaps with more pleasure, their maidservants too. It was doubtful if there was anything even Æthelgifu could teach him.

“What did you see, mother?” the child asked, surprised to find her coming down from the bellhouse.

“Your brothers are here,” Æthelgifu answered. Ælfwaru’s exclamation of excitement died upon her lips as she registered the hard line of her mother’s mouth. “You had best tell your sister.”

The brothers rode under the great burh gate and swung down off of the shaggy ponies, throwing the reins to a groom. The younger boy, Ælfward, embraced his mother; Æthelgifu ran her finger through his copper hair as she looked questioningly to his brother. Æthelward’s gangling frame had begun to fill out; last year he had taken a wife and he was become one the great men of the household, a royal dishthegn, like Ælfheah. Where, wondered Æthelgifu was Ælfheah? Why did he not come?

Æthelward’s gaze reluctantly turned from his mother to his sister, as he cleared his throat to announce, “Edwig the All-fair is dead.”

All colour drained from Ælfgifu’s cheeks. Of course she had known she had lost him, that there was no way he would be allowed to take her back, but Æthelgifu knew a part of her had still hoped. Ælfgifu shook her head, “He can’t be.”

Of course he is, thought Æthelgifu. How, when they have taken so much else from him, the half of his kingdom, the wife he loved, would they let him keep his life?

Kingston, March 956

King Edred Weak-in-the-Feet had been dying all his life, but three months previously, in his manor of Frome at the age of thirty-two, the sickly genes that the great Ælfred had passed on to his descendants had finally sent him to his rest. He had not failed in his duty. The work begun by his grandfather Ælfred, and continued by his father and aunt, his half-brother and brother, had been completed; the Viking threat had been tamed and all the former petty kingdoms of the English brought under the West Saxon heel.

The line Ælfred had drawn at the Watling Street, annexing to his own realm the heartland of the old Mercian kingdom, had been pushed back, and one by one the leaders of the Danelaw had fallen: the kings of East Anglia; the jarls of nine boroughs; the hold of Amounderness (cutting off the Kings of York from their allies in Dublin); and York, well York had proved a more intractable problem. But after many a surrender followed by many a revolt, Edred had had the scheming Archbishop Wulfstan brought south in chains; and their King, Eric Bloodaxe, for a second time cast out his city, had been slain in a trap laid by Oswulf, High Reeve of the English enclave of Bamburgh. Oswulf now held Northumbria, the land his ancestors had ruled as kings, as the ealdorman of a king who had his capital in Winchester.

A new concept was being born, England. But it was fragile. Edred had left a warchest in his will lest the Danes should rise again, and there remained a faultline in the kingdom, between Wessex and its dependencies south of the Thames, and the lands of the old Mercian hegemony to the north.

Edred’s bony backside had kept the throne warm for the sons of his brother Edmund: the aethelings Edwig and Edgar, the last heirs of Alfred’s male line. When Edmund the Magnificent had bled out on the floor of the feast hall at Pucklechurch, the knife of the outlaw in his chest, the boys had been too young to succeed, so the Witan had elected Edred. There was nothing remarkable in this; among the English kings were chosen from those of the blood who were most throneworthy. Ælfred himself had assumed the crown after his brother, the sainted Æthelred, had succumbed to the wounds he had suffered on the battlefield of Merton; it had been inconceivable that Æthelred’s infant sons should lead the West Saxons in their darkest hour against the Danish onslaught.

Yet an arrangement that was practical in the heat of war could be destabilising in times of peace. When Edward the Elder, the warrior son of Ælfred, had assumed the kingship, one of Æthelred’s sons had staked his own claim, and failing to rally the English had thrown in his lot with the Viking foe.

Edward had united the bloodlines by putting aside the mother of his eldest son to take his uncle’s granddaughter to wife, and upon his death the West Saxon Witan had elected their son Ælfward; but the Witan had reckoned without the people of Mercia, who proclaimed a king of their own, Æthelstan, the son of the woman Edward had discarded. Æthelstan had been raised at the court of his aunt, Æthelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. Æthelflaed, handed in marriage to the Mercian aetheling her father had appointed ealdorman of the English part of Mercia, had ruled the former kingdom as a semi-independent fief, first on behalf of her ailing husband, and then in her own right. On the death of his sister Edward had annexed her lands, locking her young daughter up in a nunnery, and imposing West Saxon law. The Mercians, with their proud history of independence, had neither forgotten nor forgiven, and in Æthelstan the Glorious they had found themselves a formidable leader, a man in the mould of his grandfather, scholarly, pious and warlike. Ælfward’s support crumbled, and sixteen days after the death of his father he had succumbed to one of those mysterious ends that befall unsuccessful claimants to the throne.

Having cowed the Danes of York and the Welsh princes, Æthelstan had bloodily defeated the Dublin Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons at the Battle of Brunanburh. With him in the Brunanburh had been his eighteen year old half-brother Edmund, the son of yet another of his father’s marriages, to the remarkable lady Edgifu. To secure the succession, the ascetic young King had adopted Edmund as his heir.

Edmund had peacefully succeeded Æthelstan, as Edred had Edmund, and once again there was to be no succession crisis: Edmund’s elder son Edwig, whom Edred had raised at his court, had this day stood upon the scaffold in the market square to accept the acclaim of the people, his long blonde hair glistening yet more brightly than the golden regalia in the spring sunshine.

Kingston was a liminal a place: here the tide reached its furthest point and turned, and here was the highest place in its length that the Thames could be forded, bringing together peoples of south and north. And here, in the famous minster on the gravel island formed by the meeting of the Thames and the Hogsmill, Edwig, had ceased to be simply a man and had become God’s anointed; Odo the Severe, Canterbury’s archbishop had fastened on the bracelet, and had placed the sceptre in his hand and the crown upon his head.

Tonight at the great feast Edwig would show his worthiness to be the people’s lord, the breadgiver, showering his largesse upon the great and the good, the aldermen and king’s thegns, bishops and abbots. In the the burh of the royal manor the household officials were bustling back and forth, ensuring all ran smoothly, the dishthegns, who saw to the King’s vittles, the byrles who served him his drink, and the bowerthegns who put him to bed; three men to each office who would each spend four months at court.

For Æthelgifu, a noble widow with a daughter of ripe age and two fine sons with careers to build, no finer opportunity could present itself than the accession of a virile young ruler. But how to find time alone with him?

The young King was talking to, or perhaps more accurately, being talked at, by his grandmother, Queen Edgifu, in her fifties now, but slim and straight, her manner as imperious as ever; at her shoulder stood the burly tonsured figure of Abbot Dunstan of Glastonbury, glowering grimly at his squirming royal master.

While her brothers mingled with the young cnihts of the King’s household, thegn’s son’s like themselves looking for advancement, Ælfgifu clung wide-eyed to her mother’s side as Æthelgifu pointed out who was whom among the great ones of the court. The tall beautiful woman with her hand on the arm of the jovial man with the bushy red beard, that was the King’s stepmother, Queen Æthelflaed with her second husband Æthelstan the Red; the woman who closely resembled her was her sister, and the hulking figure towering over everyone, the sister’s husband, the East Saxon thegn Byrhtnoth, a mighty spear-wielder in the shieldwall. A scarred, hatchet faced man had been identified as the ealdorman Oswulf, lured down from his eyrie in Bamburgh for the coronation, while the wiry, white haired figure buttonholing him was the disgraced archbishop Wulfstan, now installed in the see of far off Dorchester, where he could stir no further trouble in the north.

Æthelgifu was wondering whether to rescue the Northumbrian ealdorman, or perhaps ingratiate herself with the younger of the dowager queens, when she was hailed by a robust, white-bearded man, his greying locks balding on the crown. She dropped a curtsey, Ælfgifu anxiously imitating her, as, retinue in tow, the tall figure of ealdorman Æthelstan of East Anglia strode across to greet her. The brother of her late husband, ealdorman Edric of Hampshire, Æthelstan had held his office for a quarter of a century, his jurisdiction having come to encompass all those lands of the former Danelaw south of the Humber, and his reach having grown further still. They called him the Half-King.

Æthelstan introduced a small, stocky boy as his foster-son, the younger aetheling, Edgar. His head barely level with Æthelgifu’s matronly breasts, he leered at them openly. It was true then that the boy was a graceless ill-formed runt. Hopefully his handsome brother would marry soon and have issue to secure the succession. She glanced across at Ælfgifu, now blushing crimson as the aetheling’s salivating gaze switched to the daughter. And why not Ælfgifu? With her noble lineage and classical education, her pale skin and high cheeked beauty, her succulent breasts and child-bearing hips, she would make a perfect wife for the young King. Was it too much to dream that her daughter might grace the royal bed? That she might one day be the grandmother of a king?

As the Half-King strode off to speak with Cynesige, the red-faced bishop of Lichfield, Æthelgifu found herself in conversation with the aetheling’s tutor, Æthelwold. A former monk of Glastonbury, at the intercession of Queen Edgifu he had been granted the ruins of the old abbey at Abingdon, one of many that had long lain abandoned after being sacked by the Danes. He was building a new abbey which would be run on the rule of St. Benedict, without any interfering lay patron, and peopled with devout monks instead of the lazy, ignorant secular canons who scrounged livings off the remaining houses; not even Dunstan had succeeded in dislodging them at Glastonbury. Æthelwold had been immersing himself in old charters and hoped to make legal arguments for the restoration of all Abingdon’s former lands that had fallen into the hands of the laity. Æthelgifu was impressed by the young man’s gentle fervour, but she couldn’t help wondering which of her own estates had once belonged to religious houses.

Out of the corner of her eye Æthelgifu witnessed the barrel-chested dishthegn Ælfheah extricate the King from the earnest attentions of his grandmother and Abbott Dunstan. She did not know the dishthegn well, but he and his brother Ælfhere, sons of the late ealdorman of Outer Mercia, had lately become important ministers at Edred’s court. From the confident and confiding way Ælfheah took the young King’s arm it seemed they intended to make themselves similarly indispensable to his successor.

Æthelgifu’s heart fluttered as she realised that Ælfheah was leading the King towards her and her daughter. She curtsied low, her daughter following her example. The King smiled radiantly, displaying dazzling white teeth. “Nay kinswoman,” he said, signalling that they should rise. “It is I who should bow in the presence of such beauty.” His expansive gaze plainly indicated that both mother and daughter were included in the compliment; the two women blushed delightedly. Edwig, the older woman noted, though not dwarfish like his brother, was below average height, yet slim and well proportioned, his features fine and even. His moustache and beard were yet straggly, but full golden locks cascaded in waves onto his shoulders, glistening in the sun.

“This must be my cousin Ælfgifu,” he said taking the girl’s small hand in his. “When last I saw her, Ælfheah, she stamped on the toy ship my uncle’s steersman carved for me; I could never rig it right again after.”

“As I remember, sire, I dismasted your ship only because you would not return to me my dolly,” Ælfgifu replied pertly.

“That was ill done my lord, to wrest a noble lady from her chaperone,” admonished the dishthegn, chuckling under his thick, sandy moustaches. He was a short man, no taller than his master, but broad-shouldered and powerfully built. Æthelgifu was struck most by piercing pale blue eyes that missed nothing.

“Ah, but now I am King, should the lady Ælfgifu’s playthings take my fancy, she mayst not refuse me,” teased Edgar.

“And nor would she wish to,” said Æthelgifu hurriedly, observing that the King still held her daughter’s hand. The golden haired youth regarded her enquiringly. “And nor would her chaperone,” she added, smiling coyly but holding his gaze.

While the young King continued chatting easily with the mother and daughter, Ælfheah was drawn aside by his brother, Ælfhere, a taller, slimmer version of the dishthegn. Returning Ælfheah whispered in the Kings ear.

“It seems that my grandmother believes I am neglecting my duties,” sighed Edwig. Over his shoulder Æthelgifu saw the dowager Edgifu glaring across at her, Abbot Dunstan by her side as always, purse-lipped and folded-armed.

“Of course the King has no time on his coronation day for the prattle of foolish women,” agreed Æthelgifu, being sure to thrust out her ample chest and flash him her most winning smile. “But when shall our noble lord grace us with his company again? It would be our delight to entertain him as he should choose, is that not so Ælfgifu?”

“Oh yes! We are entirely at the King’s disposal, ” agreed Ælfgifu, taking her cue, and giving Edwig a freckle-faced smile that for all its open innocence would have twitched the cock of the most ascetic of Abbot Æthelwold’s monks.

“Come to my bower once the feast has begun, I will slip away and join you,” said Edwig “It can be arranged?” he asked eagerly, turning to Ælfheah.

The dishthegn appeared doubtful, but recognising the petulant turn of the King’s mouth, agreed. “It can be arranged.”

Pulling the hoods of their mantles over their heads the two women slipped past the pool of yellow light spilling from the doors of the great hall, the roar of feasting loud within, and made their way to the King’s bower. Ælfhere was waiting for them; thinner-faced than his brother, he looked positively gaunt in the moonlight. He lead them up the outer stairs to an upper chamber and told them to wait.

“Ælfheah shall cover for the King’s absence as long as he is able,” Ælfhere explained urgently, “but do not allow him to tarry too long.” With that he left, returning hurriedly to the hall.

Æthelgifu and her daughter found themselves in a chamber lit by the flickering light of torches. Rich tapestries hung from walls lined with strongboxes containing the King’s chattels, many of the finest pieces having been put on display. At the far end the King’s great bed had been assembled.

As Ælfgifu marvelled at the fineness of the hangings, Æthelgifu covetously handled a gilt-inlaid drinking horn. This was the world in which she belonged. She was not going to let it slip out of her grasp.

“If we do not have much time then we must be ready for the King when he comes,” she said. “Undress child and get in the bed.”

Ælfgifu looked at her mother open-mouthed. Æthelgifu cursed herself for not preparing the girl better. What did the little fool think they had come here for?

But then seeing her daughter before her, so innocent in her pretty frock, for a moment Æthelgifu melted. After this night Ælfgifu would no longer be the child she had taught to sew and read, who had come running to her when she had grazed a knee or to bring her posies of flowers from the wood. She would be a grown woman inducted into all the mysteries of her sex. But, Æthelgifu told herself, her daughter’s maidenhead was a price worth the paying for what they all stood to gain.

“Here,” she said, “let me.” Taking hold of the trusting face, she gently traced her finger tips along the line of the long neck, the bow of the lips, the slightly dimpled chin, the freckled cheeks; sliding her fingers up past the temples and under the wimple she removed the covering cloth, freeing the profusion of russet curls. Ælfgifu stood obediently still as Æthelgifu undressed her, feeling her mother’ s hot breath on her neck and the slow purposeful touch of her hands as they ran smoothly over the garbed flesh.

Only when Æthelgifu knelt at her feet and began lifting the linen undergarment, sensuously pushing the bunched cloth up her calves, past the knees, did Ælfgifu object. “Mother would you have the King see me quite naked?”

Infuriated at the child’s ill-timed modesty, Æthelgifu by way of answer whipped the tunic over her daughter’s head, baring the young body in one swift decisive movement. Instinctively the girl hunched her shoulders, covering her breasts with her upper arms and shielding her crotch with her hands. Æthelgifu pulled them away, Ælfgifu flinching before her mother’s apparent anger.

“Listen to me,” said Æthelgifu trying to rein in her sense of urgency and be patient with the girl. “Do you not think that every thegn in Wessex and beyond will be serving up their daughters as a dish for the King? And where will you be then, the daughter of a poor widow? But if you should please the King tonight…”

“He will marry me?” asked Ælfgifu, seeing some hope in her desperate situation.

“Perhaps,” replied Æthelgifu, not wishing to raise her daughter’s hopes so high just yet. It would not help if she were to say something foolish to the King. “But whatever else he will be grateful. There are your brothers to think of. If you can keep him interested he might even reward you with an estate or two. How should you like that?”

“But mother I have never been with a man!” exclaimed Ælfgifu, close to tears.

“I should think not my girl, do you think I would shame myself by bringing my daughter to the King’s bed if she were not a virgin? You should be honoured.”

“But I don’t know what to do with a man. How am I to please him?” sniffed Ælfgifu.

“Oh child,” said Æthelgifu, cupping her daughters face in her hands and kissing her upon the lips. “Do you think I would let such an opportunity rest on an ignorant girl and the fumblings of a boy? I shall be here to help you, both of you. Now help me undress.”

As Ælfgifu helped her mother out of her clothes Æthelgifu subtly encouraged her to linger, to familiarise herself with the matronly flesh: the firm shapely calves and fleshy thighs, the well-rounded buttocks, the spreading mat of pubes, the soft mound of her belly, the heavy, drooping breasts and the long, delicately creased neck. In the hesitant touches and unnecessary pauses the widow could sense her daughter’s fascination, and found herself enjoying it. She knew this night she would be making demands upon her daughter that no mother should make; she did not doubt that she could command her obedience, but it would be so much easier if the girl could be made to respond. The boy’s touch could not be trusted, she would need to take charge of her daughter’s body herself, to ensure that when the King came to take her she was ready and eager to be taken.

Standing naked before her naked daughter, Æthelgifu placed her hands on the younger woman’s buttocks and drew her towards her, so that their bodies met, thigh against thigh, pubic mound against pubic mound, breast against breast, lip against lip; gently at first, allowing Ælfgifu time to relax, then gradually increasing the pressure, demanding more the more her daughter responded. As their lips mashed in earnest, and their breasts squashed between them, Æthelgifu ground her crotch against her daughter’s. Slipping her tongue into her daughter’s mouth, she felt Ælfgifu respond eagerly. It was almost too much; she had not thought to awaken such passion in her daughter, had not thought that she herself could feel such desire for the child of her loins. What sort of mother am I? she thought, as her hand explored the cleft in Ælfgifu’s buttocks, sliding down to test if she were moist; what sort of daughter have I raised? as Ælfgifu urgently pushed back onto her exploring hand.

Æthelgifu broke off the clinch, amused to see her daughter’s petulant frustration as she did so, as if a toy had been taken from her. “We should be ready in the bed when the King comes,” she said.

They sat themselves side by side against the sloping head board, the covers drawn down to expose their breasts. And they waited.

“Mother,” asked Ælfgifu after a while. “Why did you kiss me?”

“I wanted to prepare you for the King,” Æthelgifu responded seriously. “He is only a boy and may be over-eager. I would not want him entering you without first having made you moist.”

“I am certainly moist now,” said Ælfgifu blowing out her cheeks. “Did you enjoy kissing me?”

“You are a very good kisser,” Æthelgifu reassured her.

Ælfgifu looked shyly across at her mother. “Would you kiss me some more? Only I think I might not be moist enough.”

Perhaps I should make sure, thought Æthelgifu. “The King could arrive at any moment. But I will check to see if you are prepared.” Giving her daughter’s nipple a playful tweak, she pulled back the covers, and parting Ælfgifu’s legs, knelt down between them. She ran her finger round the inner lips. Perhaps further moistening was called for, and since she was already down here… Tentatively she ran the tip of her tongue along the folds of the inner lips.

“Oh mother that is lovely,” said Ælfgifu. “Don’t stop.” Æthelgifu had not been with another woman since she had been sent to the convent to finish her education, had not felt the need. The nuns had been cruel, using her for their own pleasures; she had delighted in defying them, but oh in their rough treatment of her they had taken her young woman’s body to places no man had ever reached. She had wished to spare her daughter the harsh regime of the nunnery; only now could she concede how much her daughter had missed out on from being schooled at home by her mother. Why had she not done this before?

Ælfgifu’s cunt was beautiful, perfect, she thought, feeling a warm upsurge of motherly pride. And the holy sisters had taught her so much she could pass onto her daughter. Eagerly she went to work with fingers and tongue on the labia and the clitoris, denying herself only the opening, for that belonged to the King. Ælfgifu lay back in a state of a bliss: did any girl have a more devoted mother?

And that was how King Edwig found them, Æthelgifu kneeling with her arse in the air and her face buried in the Y of Ælfgifu’s legs as the girl came to a shuddering climax.

“Did I keep you waiting so long?” he asked, amused and and a little embarrassed. “It was quite difficult to slip away.”

“Our desire for you overwhelmed us, sire,” explained Æthelgifu, scrambling to the edge of her bed.

“My mother was showing me what I might expect, sire. She did not want me to be unprepared for you,” elaborated Ælfgifu.

“My daughter is a virgin I am afraid, sire. She is a complete innocent,” confirmed Æthelgifu, her lips gleaming with her daughter’s secretions.

“Very thoughtful I am sure,” murmured the bewildered youth. “Only I am not sure I know how to do what you were doing to your daughter.”

“My mother is a wonderful teacher, sire,” beamed Ælfgifu, all guileless enthusiasm. “I am sure she would show you.”

“I insist sire,” said Æthelgifu, taking charge of the situation. “Ælfgifu, what are you waiting for? Undress the King.”

Ælfgifu set to with a will, stripping Edwig of his clothes, and in doing so unleashing her first erect cock. Slim, straight and surprisingly long, it did not seem to perturb Ælfgifu at all, if anything the King seemed disconcerted to have a young woman kneeling between his legs taking such an undisguised interest in what he had there.

To Edwig’s consternation, Æthelgifu burst out laughing. “I am sorry, sire, only you seem rather overdressed.”

Looking up Ælfgifu also collapsed in giggles. “So he is.”

“I was not aware I was dressed at all,” Edwig said puzzled, then felt his head with his hands. “Oh.” He was, he realised, stark bollock naked except in that he was still wearing his golden crown.

Ælfgifu stood up and, kissing him upon the lip, lifted off the crown and tossed it across the room, not caring where it landed. “But what am I to do about your sceptre?” she asked, fondling his cock.

Æthelgifu raised herself from the bed, her broad hips swaying. “Do you mind if I demonstrate to my daughter?”

“Please do,” gulped her young liege lord.

With that the matron knelt on her haunches before the King, her daughter doing likewise that she might study her mother at work. Young girls learn from their mothers, thought Æthelgifu. I must be such a good mother.

As Æthelgifu purposefully pleasured the royal cock, teasing the bedewed glans with her tongue, while her hand manipulated the solid shaft, teaching her daughter how to bring him agonisingly to the brink of ecstasy and then hold him back. Ælfgifu learnt eagerly, imitating all her mother’s moves; but she had not yet quite her mother’s skill. Without warning Edwig’s load flew into her face.

Æthelgifu was annoyed with her daughter, she had not intended for him to come until his cock was safely buried between the girl’s legs. Then annoyance turned to concern as she saw her daughter clawing her face in distress: some of Edwig’s semen had hit her in the eye.

As Æthelgifu bathed her daughter’s eye from a pitcher by the bed, Edwig hovered around them, a picture of apologetic concern. “I am so sorry, please what can I do to make it up to you? Name anything.”

Æthelgifu’s ears pricked up at that, but before she could say anything, Ælfgifu, her eye still red and weeping, put her hand on the young King’s breast. “You did not mean to, sire; it is my fault for being clumsy and making you come when you were not prepared. Please forgive me.”

“You are so sweet!” exclaimed Edwig placing his hands on her shoulders; then earnestly looking her in the eye, he added, “I promise I shall never hurt you again. Ever.”

Ælfgifu smiled and kissed him tenderly on the lips, letting his arms engulf her. “Is she not an angel?” Edwig asked turning to her mother.

Yes thought Æthelgifu, she is. Now fuck her. “Sire,” she said, “I see you are quite recovered.” With the vigour of youth his cock was already hardening, no doubt encouraged by the rubbing of Ælfgifu’s thigh as he held her in his arms.

“Oh good, you must take me properly, in the cunt,” said Ælfgifu with a candour that alarmed even her mother.

“Of course I shall, my darling,” replied Edwig, leading her by the hand over to the bed. “Madam,” he said, turning to Æthelgifu, “Will you come to our assistance? We are both innocents. I am sure I should benefit from your instruction as much as your daughter.”

He is a virgin, realised Æthelgifu, that old bat of a grandmother has never let him near a woman. She almost laughed in triumph. There is so much I could teach them, she thought, if only there were more time. “Sire on this occasion as my daughter is already most moist, you may proceed directly to mounting her.”

“Oh yes, do so,” agreed her daughter. “I am ready.”

“Ælfgifu, lie down and clutch your knees, holding them as far apart as they will go,” instructed Æthelgifu. Ælfgifu obeyed, fully exposing her sex to the fascinated King, who had questions. Briefly Æthelgifu explained to him all the working parts, encouraging him to touch and taste,. She was conscious of the passing of time, but thought it good for her daughter’s sake that the boy should have some knowledge beyond mere thrusting.

“Are all women’s cunts so beautiful,” asked Edwig, awed as he surveyed Ælfgifu’s copper-wire crowned treasure with the puffed outer lips and the small pink inner lips splayed for his inspection.

“Women’s cunts vary as much men’s cocks, sire,” explained Æthelgifu placing one foot on the bed and the other on the floor, so the King might see better. “My lips are darker and longer than my daughter’s.”

“But just as enchanting,” answered Edwig, breathing in the rich aroma.

She winced as he tried a tentative taste. “Remember what I told you? More softly sire. Oh yes, that is much better.” The boy was a fast learner, a natural in fact.

“Sire I am sure my mother’s cunt taste’s delightful,” said Ælfgifu displaying a little impatience, “and I should like to taste it myself…”

“Of course my dear you must,” interjected the King.

“…but I should very much like to be fucked now.”

Red-faced the King desisted from pleasuring Æthelgifu, and bent to work a little uncertainly over her daughter. “Sire, allow me,” said Æthelgifu, guiding his cock to her daughter’s slot, and holding it in place, helping to ease it through the virginal lips. Once he had the head safely in she allowed him to thrust his full length. Her daughter grimaced but as far as she could see there was no blood. She made him go slowly at first, but as her daughter visibly relaxed, she encouraged him to vary the pace. Having come so recently he had the staying power for a little experimentation.

Æthelgifu felt like a little experimentation herself. Standing behind Edwig she placed her arms under his shoulders, and nibbling his ear, playfully lifted him off her daughter, so that his cock popped out. Ignoring Ælfgifu’s outraged cry of, “Mother!” she had Edwig kneel, and placing her daughter’s feet on his shoulders, bade him draw her up onto his lap; this time his cock found her cunt without assistance. The young couple easily slipped into a comfortable rhythm, not questioning why Æthelgifu had had them change.

So Edwig’s angel wanted to taste her mother’s cunt, did she? Confident that Edwig could manage without further instruction, Æthelgifu decided the time had come to satisfy her own needs. Clutching the headboard behind her back for balance, she lowered herself onto her haunches and squatted over her daughter’s face, being careful not to smother the girl. It took a little squirming, but she soon found her daughter’s willing tongue.

Edwig’s eyes were almost popping out of his face as the mature woman, her pendulous breasts swaying freely, ground her furry cunt into his sweet darling’s face. “Don’t stop thrusting boy,” scalded Æthelgifu. “It is all part of your education.”

From her vantage point at the head of the bed Æthelgifu was the first to see the door swing open as Cynesige, Bishop of Lichfield, spilled into the room. Behind him she heard Abbot Dunstan say, “Is he up there?”

As Cynesige speechlessly crossed himself, Dunstan appeared behind him. “Fornicator!” he bellowed, striding across the room. Roughly he dragged the naked boy off the bed, as the women sought to cover themselves, Æthelgifu clutching her daughter to her breast. “What means this boy, that you steal away from your coronation to consort with Jezebels?”

Momentarily Edwig stuck up for himself. “All day I have down what you asked of me. I wasn’t gone long.”

Dunstan shook the boy, his spittle spraying him as he shouted in his face. “Long enough to defile yourself with harlots!” Then catching sight of the still stiffly erect penis: “Cover your shame!” Gathering up the King’s clothes he threw them at him, and then stood over him as the boy sulkily dressed himself.

“We were not doing anything wrong, not really,” Edwig whined.

Dunstan goggled. “I saw what you were doing and I am scarce able to believe such depravity exists in the world.” He turned to the cowering women on the bed. “Wantons, with what guiles of Satan have you ensnared the boy?”

Æthelgifu held her helplessly sobbing daughter in her arms, her anger rising, but not daring to defy the onslaught of the churchman’s fury.

Straightening the King’s clothes, Dunstan asked, “Now where is your crown?” Edwig’s eyes danced around the room. “God in Heaven, boy, you must know what you have done with the crown!”

Despite her predicament, Æthelgifu found herself suppressing a smile as the Abbot and Bishop Cynesige began scouring the room. Then her daughter piped up, “I think I threw it over there.” She pointed to a dimly lit corner.

Dunstan retrieved the crown from where it had fallen behind a chest and plunked it down on the dishevelled blonde head. “There, at least you look like a king, even if you are incapable of acting like one.”

“What about these?” asked Cynesige, leering at the women in the bed.

“Bring them,” barked Dunstan, dragging the king to the door.

Cynesige roughly seized Æthelgifu’s arm. “Take your hands off me!” she protested, and using all his strength the bishop struck her with the back of his hand across the face.

Grabbing Æthelgifu by her unbound hair, the bishop pulled her face close to his, so she could see the broken veins on his nose, the malice in the yellow eyes and the spittle hanging from broken rotten teeth as he breathed out the fumes of mead. “You’ll come with me, bawds.” Still holding Æthelgifu by the hair, he dragged her upright, and seizing a nipple with his free hand, twisted it as far as it would go, causing the widow to squeal with pain. Letting go, the bishop pushed her away, and then swung his boot, planting it squarely on her bottom, laughing gleefully as he sent her sprawling face down on the floor, the wind knocked out of her.

Ælfgifu sprung to her mother’s defence, pummelling him impotently with tiny fists. Wrapping his hand in her auburn locks the bishop pulled back her head and clasped her neck in his thick-fingers. “Defy me, would you strumpet?” he snarled, spitting in the girl’s tear-stained face, and with that he thumped her in the stomach.

Taking both women by the hair, Cynesige dragged them behind him down the stair, Ælfgifu sobbing and squealing, the streaming tears reddening her girlish freckled face, whilst her mother spat and resisted all the way, earning brutal kicks to her legs from the infuriated bishop Ahead of them the doors of the hall swung open on Dunstan’s orders.

The roar of revelry from the mead benches was stilled as, his hand resting firmly on the boy’s shoulder, Dunstan marched the King to stand before the podium at the hall’s end. Then the uneasy silence collapsed into astonished giggles as Cynesige paraded the naked mother and daughter in the abbot’s wake. Wide eyed with horror Ælfgifu hunched her shoulders seeking to use hands and arms to shield her budding breasts and copper-trimmed snatch from the leers of the drunken revellers on the mead benches, her lip quivering as hot tears of shame poured down her violently blushing cheeks. But Æthelgifu made the long walk down the hall’s length with head held high, her breasts thrust out defiantly, taking each step as deliberately as the churchman’s tugging at her hair would allow, daring the thegns and cnihts gathered on the benches to want her, and returning the desire that twitched their cocks with cold disdain. Before the podium Bishop Cynesige hurled the women to the rush-strewn floor, their unbound hair and cruelly exposed flesh gleaming in the flickering glow of the hearth fire and the torches guttering in the gusts from the open doors.

As Ælfgifu strove to hide her shame, prostrating herself as she buried her face in the straw, Æthelgifu defiantly attempted to struggle up, only for the bishop to plant his foot in her back, grinding her down with his heel. Behind the tables on the raised dais to either side of the empty throne, sat the members of the royal house with the aldermen and prelates, all gazing down upon the furiously blushing King and the two sprawled women, the slim sobbing girl, pert-breasted and freckled skinned, her glinting russet hair veiling her face, and the full-bodied brunette matron, the weight of the priest’s sandal upon her back flattening the large breasts against the hall-floor while the wide buttocks arced and splayed as she tried desperately to raise herself, revealing thick hairy pussy lips.

Archbishop Odo, stern and white-haired, looked as though the shock of having two naked Jezebels hurled at his feet might send him early to his grave. Æthelstan Half-King, for once in his long life, seemed at a loss, feeling perhaps that he should avert his eyes from the shame of his brother’s wife and daughter, but unable to tear his rheumy eyes from the squirming pulchitrude cast before his feet. Ealdorman Oswulf was trying hard not to laugh while taken the most unabashed interest in the naked forms of the humiliated noblewomen. The aetheling Edgar was craning over the table for a better view. Only the beautiful Queen Æthelflaed showed any compassion, clutching the arm of her husband Æthelstan the Red, who seemed torn between concern at his wife’s discomfiture and joining the lummox Byrhtnoth in his ribald laughter as he pummelled him on the other shoulder. They were all, Æthelgifu realised, very drunk.

The King’s grandmother, Queen Edgifu, rose unsteadily to her feet; stepping down from the platform tottered forward to where the King stood, and slapped him across the face.

“How dare you bring this disgrace upon our house,” she railed. “Is this how you propose to behave as king? Shirking your royal duties so you might rut with whores?”

“I didn’t mean to,” muttered Edwig.

“What?” snarled his grandmother.

“They tricked me.” he added lamely.

“Renounce these strumpets,” commanded Dunstan.

“Yes, yes, take them away,” the King cried, plaintively. “I never want to see them again.”

“Edwig, no,” the horrified Ælfgifu cried out jumping to her feet, her devastation complete as the King was the one man in the hall who refused to gaze upon the slim full-breasted figure standing helpless in her nakedness, her perfect, until-today virgin, body revealed in all its bounty. In tears she hopelessly beseeched her lover to acknowledge her before these awful men as they ravished her with their eyes – callow cnihts, brutal thegns, pious bishops, all with bulging cocks hidden in their breaches, longing to violate her girlish form.

Pushing aside the fat leg of the distracted bishop, Æthelgifu struggled to her feet. Looking from rapt, twisted face to rapt, twisted face, Æthelgifu sensed the imminence of violence, a drunken, lust-fuelled passion which would outrage her daughter’s every orifice and rend her limb from limb. The brutes shall not have her, thought Æthelgifu, with a mother’s fierce determined love. Standing side side with her daughter, Æthelgifu placed a protective arm around Ælfgifu’s naked shoulders, and stared defiantly around the hall.

In the sea of slavering faces Æthelgifu gaze settled upon the king’s stepmother, Queen Æthelflaed, the long honeyed tresses framing an angelic beauty that belied her womanly nature. This long-legged lovely with her high shapely breasts had not become the bedfellow of the lusty Edmund without knowing the tricks to satisfy a man’s appetites or understanding the fine line that those who catch a king’s eye tread between high honour and utter ruin; in the almond eyes Æthelgifu saw sympathy for her plight.

Very deliberately the Queen rose to her feet; her long limbs were trembling, but she stood very straight and spoke very clear. “I think you should leave now,” she said, her eyes entreating the widow and her daughter to go, as she dismissed them with an imperious gesture of her hand.

The spell broken, Æthelgifu ‘s sons came leaping off of the cnihts’ benches, Æthelward wrapping his sister in his cloak, as, averting his gaze, Ælfward shyly held his out for his mother.

As the boys led the women past the hooting benches, Æthelward turned on Æthelgifu, “You have ruined us all, mother.”

Clutching her younger son’s arm for strength, Æthelgifu dissolved into sobs.

Behind them Edwig was humbly promising to be a better king to his people.

Having lain awake most of the night half mad with worry, Æthelgifu slept in late. She awoke to a sense of cold dread. She had disgraced her late husband’s memory, ruined her daughter and blighted her sons prospects, been cast out by the church and forbidden the court. All men’s hands would be turned against her and her children. What had she done?

She heard her sons protesting outside, and then the flap opened as the dishthegn Ælfheah barged his way into the tent.

“My lady, the King would see you,” he announced. Æthelgifu blanched. What now?

The dishthegn did not seem inclined to leave, so Æthelgifu, past modesty, dressed in front of him, Ælfheah smirking and twiddling his moustache as he unashamedly surveyed her ample matronly charms. She did not hurry, taking the time to ensure her wimple was straight and powdering the bruise where Cynesige had slapped her. Whatever happened she would face it like a noblewoman.

When she was finished, Ælfheah came and looked her over. “The King will find you pleasing,” he said, satisfied. “That is to the good.” Æthelgifu’s heart skipped.

“Edwig has recollected to himself what it means to be a king,” the dishthegn continued, taking her arm. “Those who laid rough hands upon the King and upon his friends shall feel his wrath.”

As he led her through the village of tents that had grown up outside the town to accommodate the overspill of thegns and their retinues gathered in Kingston for the coronation, Ælfheah told her more of what had passed. Once Dunstan had sobered up, it had begun to dawn on him that he might have gone too far, and, being warned of the King’s wrath, he had taken to his heels. Bishop Cynesige too had fled the court; and when Queen Edgifu had demanded to see her grandson, she had been refused. Now that the Edwig had seized the initiative, Æthelstan Half-King and the other ealdorman, each of them nursing a hangover, were uncertain how to act.

Æthelgifu tried to imagine the petulant young King acting so decisively, and found herself instead contemplating the bold confident manner of his dishthegn. This is your doing, she thought, seeing the stocky Ælfheah through fresh eyes.

In the royal bower, Edwig, surrounded by a press of cnihts and young thegns, was in deep conversation with Ælfhere and the bishop of London, Byrhthelm; however Queen Æthelflaed greeted Æthelgifu with a kiss on the cheek, calling her sister, as Æthelstan the Red beamed on uxorially.

“Are you quite recovered from your ordeal?” the young Queen asked solicitously, resting a hand upon Æthelgifu’s arm.

“Thank you, my lady,” Æthelgifu replied. “I am a little shaken; it is not everyday one finds oneself dragged from one’s bed and paraded naked before the greatest in the land.”

“These churchmen who do not allow themselves women can be such brutes; what they can’t bring themselves to fuck they turn their hand against. My late husband despised Abbot Dunstan,” she confided, vehemently. “He would have banished him, but my poor Edmund was a superstitious man and when his horse bolted almost sending him over a cliff, he became convinced it was God’s wrath for having planned to exile the wretched bully.”

“He will not be allowed back this time? Or Cynesige?” Æthelgifu asked hopefully.

“We shall have to see that they are not, you and I.” Æthelflaed, then whispered in her ear. “My Edmund told me once that Edric’s widow was among the comeliest of the women of the West Saxons; after what I saw of you in the hall last night I know he spoke no less than truth. I do hope you and I shall be the best of friends,” she added holding Æthelgifu eyes with hers, and discreetly patting her upon the bottom.

Æthelgifu smiled at her gratefully. Some good had come from the humiliation of the night before if some ember of desire had be stirred in this influential lady. Surveying the pale complexion, long chiselled nose, full lips and high, firm breasts of the tall, golden-haired Queen, Æthelgifu felt that it would be no hardship to fan those embers. She wondered if Æthelflaed would want her red-headed buffoon of a husband to watch, if she did then Æthelgifu would at least insist that he refrain from his apparent need to fill any silence with a joke.

“My Lady Æthelgifu,” the King exclaimed, Ælfheah having discreetly brought her to the royal notice. “I humbly beg your pardon for the outrage of last night.” Approaching her he added confidingly, “You have my assurance that the traitors responsible shall be punished.”

“I hope it shall be so, sire,” murmured Æthelgifu.

The King looked at her shyly. “The insult to my lady Ælfgifu…” he began tentatively, “I hope she may find it in her heart to forgive me that I did not spring to her defence?”

“Her hurt runs deep, sire,” replied, not untruthfully; the girl had sobbed half the night for her poor Edwig.

Edwig looked earnest. “If you should allow it, and if your daughter should consent, I would hope to erase the smear upon her name, and yours.”

“How so, sire?” Æthelgifu asked, her heart skipping a beat.

“By making my darling Ælfgifu my queen.”

Slipping out of the honeymoon chamber, where the young king and queen sprawled exhausted, Æthelgifu returned to the private room that had been set aside for her use. Ælfheah was waiting on the bed. “I thought you would never be done with them,” he grumbled.

“They are young and in love and eager to learn,” explained Æthelgifu snuggling up against the man ten years younger.

“I hoped they have not tired you out,” he said hopefully, squeezing her breast in his hard hand.

“Not quite,” she replied, stroking the short thick cock. “There is still work for you to do.”

Ælfheah was a married man, but while he was at court his wife was at home running their estates, whereas Æthelgifu’s place was at her daughter’s side; certainly she had no intention of taking a husband. The arrangement with the dishthegn would suit them both. Now her daughter was Queen Æthelgifu had though better of encouraging the attentions of the flirtatious Æthelflaed, indeed she did not want the royal beauty at court any more than could be helped. Edwig would not be the first young king to have his roving eye fall upon a comely stepmother.

Æthelgifu was forceful in encouraging her son-in-law to assert his new found independence. At her insistence, the King’s grandmother Queen Edgifu was not only banished from court, but stripped of her estates. Æthelgifu also added her voice to Ælfheah’s on the need to secure the royal treasury at Glastonbury, but went further in urging the confiscation of the immense personal wealth accumulated by Abbot Dunstan. The biddable king’s thegn sent to ransack the monastery had other orders from Æthelgifu: Dunstan was to be struck down while resisting. The abbot, scurrying from hiding place to place, one step ahead of his would-be assassins, had been obliged to flee abroad to Flanders. To justify the abbot’s banishment Æthelgifu had word put about that he had been helping himself from the royal coffers.

With this new wealth, and with the seizure of lands from those who had prospered under his uncle, the King was able to reward his followers, young men like himself, often with some royal blood in their veins, such as Bishop Byrhthelm, the brothers Ælfheah and Ælfhere, or Æthelgifu’s own sons, Æthelward and Ælfward.

The deaths of incumbents meant that Edwig was also free to begin appointing his own ealdormen. Mercia south of the Trent became the portion of Æthelstan the Red, the genial husband of the King’s stepmother; while Byrhtnoth, the husband of Queen Æthelflaed’s sister, succeeded to Essex where his and his wife’s families had both held office in the recent past. Since the death of the father of Ælfheah and Ælfhere, those lands of the Middle Angles and Middle Saxons where the English law still held had come under the jurisdiction of Æthelstan of East Anglia, who also held the Danish law boroughs north of the Watling Street, and whose writ ran as far north as Lindsey. Edgar now-filled the vacant ealdormanry, at Æthelgifu’s prompting appointing Ælfhere, so the elder brother might remain at the King’s side to counsel him, and to service his Queen’s mother.

Æthelstan Half-King’s powers were failing, his eldest son assuming many of his duties as ealdorman; in due course the young man would be allowed to succeed fully, but without his father’s influence. With the formidable Oswulf in Northumbria and the old warhorse Æthelmund holding North Mercia, the new appointments ensured that Æthelstan and his family were hemmed upon all sides with potential rivals. Edwig was determined that no one ealdorman would again wield the power of a Half-King.

And then the wily old ealdorman dealt Edwig the most damaging blow imaginable: he retired. For a quarter of a century he had kept the peace in the southern Danelaw, allowing the Danish jarls a degree of self-governance while upholding the rights of the old Mercian nobility and commanding loyalty to the West Saxon crown. His ostentatious withdrawal to a cell in Glastonbury ushered in an uncertainty, a space within which old fears could be reawakened and old grievances freshly aired.

It was Byrhthelm, the young bishop of London, who brought the news of what had happened next.

“A meeting of the Mercian Witan?” Edwig could hardly believe what he was hearing. “There is no Mercian Witan! They have not met since….”

Since they had chosen Æthelstan as King ahead of his half-brother Ælfward; Ælfward who had been dead within the fortnight.

“They have elected Edgar,” Byrhthelm confirmed. “He has promised not just to respect the customs of the Danes but to restore to Mercia all those freedoms it had before King Edward’s time.”

Ælfgifu clutched her husband’s hand as he sunk back in his chair, the colour draining from his cheek.

“He has also made a vow to reform the monasteries,” the bishop added ruefully. “He’d have folk believe he is on some sort of holy mission. It’s that blasted holier-than-thou abbot, Æthelwold. Really, what do laymen care if a priest keeps a woman or cannot read and write, so long as the fellow sobers up sufficiently to say the prayers he has been paid for?”

“What of my ealdormen?” asked Edwig. He had no hopes of Æthelmund, but the others were men of his own making, surely they owed him loyalty?

“The ox Byrhtnoth has been the prime mover in all this, together with Æthelstan’s pack of wolfcubs,” Byrhthelm explained. “Though if you ask me it is the old man pulling the strings, along with that bat Edgifu. Æthelstan the Red was on board from the outset as well. Never trust a man who tries too hard to be liked.”

“He is married to my stepmother,” the dazed Edwig threw in needlessly.

“Edgar’s stepmother too don’t forget. She can’t make fuss enough over the boy, even if he does barely come up to her tits.”

Damn the bitch, thought Æthelgifu. I keep her at arms length from Edwig so she holds her nose and parts those long legs for the brat Edgar.

“And Ælfhere?” she asked, exchanging alarmed glances with Ælfheah.

“If he did not have a hand in it from the start he saw which way the wind was blowing,” the bishop replied. “Edgar makes a great deal of him, always asking his opinion before that of his other ealdormen, and in all his proclamations ensuring Ælfhere’s name is linked with his. He’s binding him to his cause; Ælfhere’ll not desert him now.”

As the bishop rattled on Edwig crumpled into Ælfgifu’s arms, sobbing tears of frustration and self-pity as he buried his golden head in her bosom. Feeling sick to her stomach Æthelgifu wondered what was to become of them all.

Edgar did not press home his advantage, being content to be proclaimed King of the Mercians and Northumbrians, Oswulf and the York Danes having fallen into line. Edwig continued to style himself King of the English, but though he retained control of the coinage, his writ no longer ran north of the Thames. Nor could he stop Edgar recalling his old enemy Dunstan and installing him in the see of London, replacing poor Byrhthelm who for his loyalty had been obliged to remove to Wells, where the canons, sympathetic to Glastonbury and to Dunstan, flatly rejected his authority.

In return for continuing to support Edwig the West Saxon Witan exacted a price: Edwig was put aside his wife. Archbishop Odo decreed that the marriage was be dissolved on grounds of consanguinity.

Alone in her chamber with Ælfheah, Æthelgifu railed at the injustice. “They are barely cousins at all! Ælfgifu’s grandfather’s grandfather was the brother of Edwig’s grandfather’s father. How can it be wrong for them to marry?”

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