A Meeting of Equals

The short story that gave M.J.Porter the characters of Coelwulf and Pybba from her novel, The Last King.
Alfred the Great, by Samuel Woodforde.
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I’m used to dealing with warriors. I’m not sure what to make of the man before me. I’ve heard a great deal about King Alfred. It seems much of it is true. I confess I’m disappointed.

I came here to find an ally in arms, prepared to assist me in beating back the Raiders, a man committed to keeping his kingdom whole, as I endeavour to do with Mercia.

Alfred is not a warrior. Far from it. His hair might once have been blond, but is now some indeterminate shade between blond and grey. I thought him a young man, well, younger than I at least. I suppose that doesn’t necessarily make him young. How strange it is to see those who are younger than me seem aged. I don’t think of myself as old. Well, only when Rudolf is close.

Alfred’s eyes flash dull blue, and some wisps on his cheeks and above his lips, attest to the fact that he isn’t capable of growing a full beard. Lucky man.

But more than anything, it’s his lack of muscles that tell me the truth of who this man is. How, I think, has he fought against the Raiders for all these years?

We meet as equals, that gives me some hope. He doesn’t expect me to bow before him. Instead, he walks to greet me, hand outstretched to clasp my forearm. I mirror the movement. This is altogether far too civilised.

“Lord Ceolwulf,” a smile tightens his lips, and his voice is deeper than I suspected it would be as I lightly grasp his forearm, feeling less muscle than I’m used to encountering from such an act.

“King Alfred,” I use his title. I know he’s been crowned. I know he’s been chosen by Almighty God to rule Wessex. I refuse to insist on such pretensions and often refuse to respond to ‘lord,’ most notably when it’s Edmund or Icel who try and insist on the formality. It depends on how difficult I’m feeling.

We pause then, two kings, for I’ve also endured the tedium of a holy coronation, each eyeing up the other. I consider what he sees when he looks at me. We couldn’t be more different if we tried.

I tower over him, able to see his growing bald spot easily. My arms could crush him if he were my enemy. My beard is as light as the day, my long hair reaching beyond my shoulders, no hint of grey, or even white to be seen. My skin is shaded a permanent warm shade. I spend all of my time outdoors. It’s almost impossible to get me beneath the shadow of a roof, apart from during the winter months, when there’s no choice but to seek shelter from the extreme weather.

And that’s not the only difference. I’m dressed as a warrior, the only jewellery I condescend to wear is a symbol of my claim to Mercia, the two-headed eagle brooch, an ancient family heirloom. My true claim is the sword I carry, crowned with the self-same symbol. It marks me for who I am and what I stand for. I am Mercia.

While King Alfred doesn’t wear his crown, he’s a man of a civilised court. His tunic seems dipped in molten gold, his neck adorned with a golden cross, and he even has clean shoes! It’s the final point that makes my eyebrows furrow. I can’t remember the last time I had clean shoes. Hiltiberht has more important things to worry about than whether my boots are muddy or not. He must care for my mount, Haden, and see to his needs, which are many and varied and likely to change on a day to day basis. That horse is a monster of changeability.

I almost smirk at the thought of him, kicking the stable doors, even as I left him, his opinion freely given on this enterprise.

But, I confess, despite my apparent advantages over King Alfred of Wessex, I feel uncomfortable.

While I both respect and hate my Raider enemy, I feel I have the upper-hand when forced into tedious exchanges with them. I expected to feel the same here, but I’m not sure that I do.

A long silence stretches between us. What happens now? Usually, a diatribe of abusive language would pass between the two sides. I’m not entirely sure how to react to a man who not only wants to be my ally but is unarmed. I can’t even see an eating dagger on his belt. This man is supremely confident, and yet, I believe he’s weak.

I open my mouth and then close it. I’ve stepped back from our initial greeting, and now I feel as though I tower over him even more.

There’s a strained expression on Alfred’s face and I presume his courtly manners have deserted him. I never had any, so I feel better about that.

“Talk to me of your proposals,” I find the words from somewhere.

This seems to recall him to our purpose.

“Of course,” his deep voice, so at odds with his appearance, thrums with just those words. “Sit with me,” he offers, turning to indicate the two chairs that have been set out for our meeting. When the request was made that we bring our chairs to this meeting of kings, I found it ludicrous.

But given Alfred’s elaborate wooden chair, so heavy I imagine an ox, not a horse, was forced to bring it to our meeting place, it’s taken altogether more planning that I’ve put into my stool. It’s the one I use when I’m fighting Raiders and camping on some god-forsaken hill. And that’s only when Hiltiberht remembers to pack it. I would be just as happy with the floor beneath my arse.

Here, Alfred wins the game of diplomacy. Or perhaps he doesn’t. We might be on neutral ground, but this smacks a little of desperation. Alfred hopes to impress. But having a great big chair doesn’t impress me. Not at all.

Neither would a pile of severed heads, although the Raiders would appreciate such a statement.

As I settle on my stool, our heads now level, I appreciate the subtleties that Alfred is trying to employ.

He must know what I look like, and my reputation speaks for itself. In place of that, he has nothing but a crown, or rather a chair, with which to taunt me.

“Your reputation as the man the Raiders are scared of interests me.” I’m sure it does. I wait for him to say more, but when he merely waits, his hands resting in his lap, I realise he expects me to repay the compliment. I flounder. What can I say about him? He’s survived, more by luck than skill. I’ve always thought derisively of that. Perhaps he deserves my respect. There’s little about him to win the trust of others, to make them pledge their lives to him—nothing, other than his birth-right and his tenacity. I wouldn’t think it enough.

“Your reputation for survival interests me.” I have no idea if I’m saying the correct thing. His facial tells are far from reassuring.

“The Raiders are rarely terrified of anyone,” King Alfred states, ignoring my feeble efforts.

“They believe they’re the most fearless warriors ever to live. They don’t expect to encounter anyone who can beat them, and certainly not here. They believe our island is ripe for the taking.”

“And we have shown them that’s not the case.” I think he tries to sound firm, assert that fact, but it sounds feeble, even with his deep voice.

“Individually, we’ve been effective, but together we could be much more.” Alfred’s eyes light up at the thought. I wish the idea of an alliance filled me with as much delight. I’ve been alone since King Burgred left Mercia, and it’s not lost on me that much of that blame must lie with Alfred and Wessex. Burgred was his brother by marriage, and Alfred refused to assist him against the Raiders. Wessex has paid the price for that oversight.

Mercia has as well.

“If we worked together, how would we reach decisions?” I’m used to deciding and having my warriors follow my commands without argument. I don’t think that Alfred would do that. Neither do I believe his sour-faced warriors would agree to follow my instructions.

Alfred seems to consider my question carefully; his eyes narrowing in concentration.

“When King Burgred ruled Mercia, we had an alliance of mutual support,” Alfred speaks slowly, perhaps worried he’ll upset me. And he has. Only real strength of will prevents me from pointing out how that arrangement was abandoned.

“But how were decisions reached about what constituted mutual support and what situations required reciprocal support?”

“Mercia was under almost constant attack both from the north and the east. Wessex did what it could for Mercia. Mercia never once came to the aid of Wessex.” Alfred’s tone has grown sharp, his blue eyes reflecting his anger, even though I’ve not accused him of anything.

“Mercia is still under attack.” The fact I have to say this surprises me.

“Mercia still stands,” is Alfred’s immediate reply. I want to laugh. Why are we arguing about this? Does he think that Mercia still ‘owes’ him, and Wessex, something?

I sigh, running my hand through my hair. I didn’t want to come here. I knew it would be a waste of time. I meet the eyes of Pybba. He nods at me, as though agreeing with my thoughts.

Pybba didn’t want this meeting. Pybba was vocal about that, and Pybba is a wise man, the loss of his hand, a few years ago, fighting the Raiders, making him eager to kill as many as he can. He and young Rudolf are a fierce combined force. I’ve almost think to pity the Raiders who come against them, believing them weak; a slight youth and a one-handed warrior. They’re soon proved wrong.

“Wessex still stands as well, and while I fight the raiders, you seem to do little but beget children and make alliances with the Raiders.”

There, I’ve said it. It brings me no joy, and I speak in a flat voice.

A murmur of conversation swells amongst those who watch us. It might only be Alfred and I who speak, but many more witness our discussion.

Do we argue about the future of our kingdoms, or is there something else at stake? I wish I knew.

I know war and battle, not politics. Violence has allowed me to hold onto Mercia. I’m unsure if that’s the same for Alfred. If it is, it’s through battles fought in his name, not by him. I know men and women speak of his survival against the Raiders with awe, but what has he actually done, other than hiding and then rely on someone else to fight his battles for him?

He has not stood and fought, as I have. He has not lost close friends and allies. He has not fought men and women hungering for his death. He has not worn the blood of others as his crown. He has not been hunted by thousands of Raiders intent only on his death, as I have.

“You and I are more alike than different. We’ve both been forced to use compromise when we didn’t want to. What matters is people’s lives and livelihoods. How that’s accomplished is of less importance.” Alfred flutters his hands, dismissing my concerns. That boils me, and I can see Pybba growing frustrated with this man who thinks to use words as weapons, rather than weapons as words. I know what I would do.

“So you propose an alliance of mutual support where the prize is maintaining what we currently hold?”

I feel I have to force the issue.

“An alliance of mutual support where the prize is the knowledge that others will also fight for your kingdom if it’s overrun.”

I don’t believe this is worth my time or consideration. The Mercians support me. Always. They will eternally take up arms to protect what belongs to them. They will not do that for the kingdom of Wessex. I know that.

Still, I’m curious.

“And how would we announce such? How would the people of Mercia and Wessex know of this accord, and know not to take up arms against one another?”

“A symbol of our alliance should suffice.”

“What sort of symbol?”

And now Alfred’s eyes cloud. Already, I don’t trust him and his ambitions. I’m sure that the next word out of his mouth will be London. What is it with the Raiders and the kings of Wessex? They covert London above all else. I would much sooner have Gloucester, or Tamworth or even Northampton, but all they want is London and the stinking river that flows beside her.

“A coin.”

“A what?” Of all the things he could have said, I would not have expected him to mutter those words.

“A coin,” and he places an object into my hand.

I almost don’t want to look, to drag my eyes away from his, trying to determine the truth behind such a simple command, but the weight of it forces me to eye the object placed into my waiting hand.

It is a coin. I’m not entirely sure what’s so special about it.

“A mark of unity,” Alfred states, pointing to the surface of the object. Only then do I look closer, and then even closer.

Ah, I understand now.

“It’s been done before, and now it would be a mark of our alliance against a common enemy,” Alfred urges, and I’m aware that it has been done, and I’m also conscious that doesn’t mean it needs to be done again. Once was surely enough?

It seems that Alfred has tried an alliance with Mercia, by marrying a Mercian woman while his sister married the Mercian king, and now he devises a new ploy.

“King Berhtwulf of Mercia and King Æthelwulf of Wessex, together, on one coin.” Alfred’s voice is high with excitement, but I confess, his words fail to impress me. What use is a coin against the Raiders? What good will such a trinket gift to me? Will it replenish my lost numbers? Will it drive the Raiders from my lands?

Will it make my people yearn to fight for Wessex? Will it make the Wessex warriors keen to fight to protect Mercia? I can’t see it.

What I do see causes a tight smile to touch my lips.

“Who will be first?” I ask, turning my gaze back to Alfred, enjoying the slip of his eager smile. He’s like a child who thought to gain something by only mentioning half of what they wanted, in the hope that the other wouldn’t appreciate what was being arranged. It’s similar to giving away something you only desire a little to gain something you genuinely hunger.

King Berhtwulf was not my ancestor. He was one of the kings who should never have ruled Mercia. I hardly think it fitting to wish to emulate him.

“First?” Alfred asks. “Each coin has two sides. There will be a side for Mercia and one for Wessex.”

The thought should probably thrill me; only it doesn’t. Such an alliance speaks not of equals, but of one having superior control over another. And Alfred isn’t finished yet.

“They would be struck and distributed from London.”

“But London is Mercian.”

“London is Mercian, but it is the centre of England’s trade. Those from far and wide, know of London’s great wealth. Such coins will be used by traders from all over Frankia and the northern kingdoms. They’ll spread the word that Mercia and Wessex are united. That Mercia and Wessex will defeat the Raiders.”

I can’t see that any of those events will come about. Why would traders speak of a simple coin? Coins are for buying and selling, not for proclaiming an alliance.

But my attention is caught by Pybba. He has heard every word Alfred has spoken, and I can see that he finds the proposition appealing. That surprises me. He was so against this meeting.

And really, what am I giving away?

This is not an alliance that offers anything other than a promise, and I know that such is far more potent than King Alfred truly understands. The hope of ridding the twin kingdoms of the Raiders will be beguiling, and enticing. I can almost appreciate just how King Alfred has stayed in control of his kingdom, even though his hands are softer than a child’s. Has he ever killed a man? Does it even matter when he thinks such clear thoughts?

“I’ll consider your suggestion.” I sit back on my stool as I speak, only then realising just how far forward Alfred has been sitting, and how eagerly those in his entourage listen to his words.

Alfred needs this token far more than I do, that much is evident.

And really, what do I have to lose?

I would sooner he allied with me than with the Raiders.

I dredge a smile to my cheeks. It feels unfamiliar, and perhaps, it’s a little daunting, because Alfred shudders back from my presence.

“I’ll consider it carefully,” I reiterate. I’m not about to agree straight away. Why would I? I’ll make King Alfred sweat for a little longer yet.