Deleted scene: Lord of the North Wind

Weregild

 

“MY LORD, I demand weregild … against this man.”

Aldfrith leaned back in his chair, taking a moment to study the small group before him. The accuser—a short and broad fellow with a high-colored, belligerent face—stood before the high seat. The man bristled with arrogance, legs akimbo, and hands on his hips. His wife stood next to him. Her red-rimmed eyes were downcast, her face blotchy.

A few feet to their left stood a tall, lean man. Aldfrith recognized him: he was Edric, a weaponsmith who lived in the fort. Aldfrith knew the man accusing him too. He was a miller named Seward; a man who had demanded audience with the king before, although over much smaller matters.

Aldfrith knew why he was here—everyone did.

Edric, a much younger man than Seward, glowered at his accuser, large hands fisting by his side. However, he held his tongue and waited for the king to speak.

Aldfrith dragged in a deep breath. He disliked this aspect of kingship, of making judgments and meting out justice. The responsibilities of such decisions weighed upon his conscience. “Weregild is a serious matter,” he said when the silence drew out and became uncomfortable. Weregild—‘man price’—was a way of compensating folk for wrongs committed against them or their kin. “I heard your son’s death was an accident.”

The miller made a choking sound, his heavy brow furrowing. “It wasn’t. The smith slew him.”

To Aldfrith’s left, the priest Oswald muttered an oath and crossed himself, while to the king’s right, Cerdic shifted uncomfortably.

Aldfrith glanced up, catching Cerdic’s eye. The warrior was frowning, a warning in his eyes.

Aldfrith gave a curt nod and looked away. He did not need Cerdic’s caution though; he already had the measure of the situation.

“Tell me what happened then,” he replied.

Seward drew himself up. “Our son Wulfgar was a fine lad.” His gaze shifted to the priest then, seeking an ally. “And a God-fearing one. Did he not always come to church?”

Oswald nodded, his face grave. “I saw him every Sunnandæg.”

Impatience rose within Aldfrith. He did not care what the priest thought.

Perhaps noting the king’s shift in mood, the miller hastily continued. “My son was a hard worker, sire. He labored at my side and had won the heart of a maid. They were promised to each other.” Seward’s gaze swung round, seizing upon the smith. “But Edric wanted her too. He tried to steal her from my son.”

Aldfrith fought the urge to massage his temples; he could feel a headache looming. He did not need to hear all of this. He just wanted the facts. “Tell me of their fight,” he replied. “I hear there was a brawl in the meadhall?”

Seward swallowed. “Aye, sire. Wulfgar found him there, drinking and boasting of how he had plowed the lass my son was to wed.”

The priest crossed himself once more at this, and murmur rose up in the watching crowd inside the hall.

“So they fought?” Aldfrith pressed.

“Aye, and Edric killed my son in a drunken rage.” Seward’s broad chest heaved as he spoke these words. “And for that I demand weregild.”

Aldfrith’s gaze narrowed. “Gold will not bring your son back.”

“No, sire … but it will give me vengeance.”

Aldfrith inhaled deeply, shifting his gaze to the accused. Edric the smith had not uttered a word since entering the hall. “What say you then, Edric?” he said. “Are this man’s words true?”

“He lies,” the smith replied, his voice rough with anger. “Wilda was not promised to Wulfgar. She and I are in love, and we plan to wed mid-summer.”

“Whoreson!” Seward interrupted. “It is he who lies, sire!”

“Quiet.” Cerdic’s voice fell like a hammer-blow in the cavernous space. “You’ve said your piece, miller. Hold your tongue now.”

Seward’s already high-colored face reddened further, yet he did as bid.

“Wulfgar attacked me with a seax in the meadhall,” Edric continued, his gaze never leaving Aldfrith’s. “I drew a weapon of my own and we fought. However, Wulfgar was drunk on mead and he fell, catching his head on the back of the table. That’s what killed him, sire.”

Silence fell after this proclamation. It was plainly told, with no embellishment. Aldfrith believed him.

“It is a sorry tale,” Aldfrith said finally, and he meant it.

This situation illustrated exactly why he had chosen to remain apart from earthly lust and passion. It could turn a man mad, and indeed—in Wulfgar’s case—it had. “I don’t believe you killed the lad in cold blood.”

Seward’s sharply indrawn breath followed, as did Bishop Wilfrid’s stern look of disapproval. Aldfrith ignored them both.

“However, a man is still dead, and his father has the right to ask for weregild … you will pay him two-hundred thrymsas.”

Edric blanched, swaying slightly on his feet.

“That’s not enough, sire,” Seward bellowed, releasing the breath he had just drawn in. “My son wasn’t a base-born ceorl. He was a miller’s son. His life is worth at least twice that sum.”

Aldfrith clenched his jaw. The miller was sorely trying his patience. If it were up to him, he would dismiss the lot of them from his hall right now. Yet with the likes of the bishop and his thegns looking on, he had to be seen to uphold the law.

He met Edric’s eye, pity rising within him at the desolate look on the man’s face. “Two-hundred thrymsas is the price, smith.”

The young man’s throat bobbed. “I only have fifty gold shillings to my name, sire.”

“Then you must give the miller that. The rest you will pay as you earn.”

It was a cruel fate. Such a sum would take the lad many years to pay. Yet Seward the miller was not satisfied. He took a step toward the king, his face twisted in outrage. “No, sire. He must pay all of it now, or I’ll have his head!”

“Still your tongue.” Aldfrith’s patience snapped. “The man does not have the money to give. Another word, and you will not get one piece of gold.”

That silenced Seward. His eyes bulged, and beside him his wife plucked at his sleeve. “Seward,” she murmured. “Let it be.”

Seward shook her off, his gaze still riveted upon the king.

Aldfrith glanced over at Cerdic. “Escort the miller from the hall.”

The warrior gave a curt nod and stepped down from the high seat, signaling to his men to join him. They circled the miller and his wife, blocking the king from view.

Seward left the Great Hall without another word.

A young woman pushed her way out from the edge of the crowd then. She was tall and slender, with long curly hair the color of peat. Weeping, she threw herself into Edric the smith’s arms. Watching them, Aldfrith realized that this must be Wilda; the girl the two young men had been fighting over.

The couple clung together, oblivious to the onlookers.

Aldfrith watched them. Edric and Wilda made a fine couple, although the girl’s face was blotchy from crying and the smith’s eyes glittered with tears of his own. “I’ll not be able to wed you,” he rasped. “Not without any coin.”

“Dolt.” She drew back, wiping a hand over her face. “Do you think I care about that? I’d wed you, even if you owed twice that amount. Seward the Miller will not ruin our happiness.”

The hall grew still around them.

“Brazen wench,” Oswald muttered from Aldfrith’s side. “She’s the reason the men fought in the first place.”

Aldfrith said nothing. Instead, his gaze was riveted upon the couple—and on the love he saw reflected in their eyes as they stared at each other.

Suddenly, inexplicably, he felt the loneliest man alive. 

Comments