The small boy stood in the corner of the room, forgotten for the moment by his father, the king. The thanes who clustered about King Ethelwulf were dour of face and grim of voice, and the word they were constantly using was a word Alfred did not know.
What did it mean? Alfred melted even deeper into the corner of the king's hall at Southampton Manor and tried to understand what the thanes were saying. His brother Ethelbald was in rebellion; that was clear enough. But what did "rebellion" mean?
For the past year Alfred and his father had been away from Wessex on a pilgrimage to Rome. During that time responsibility for the government had been divided between Alfred's two oldest brothers, Athelstan and Ethelbald. Then, but a few months before, Athelstan had died and Ethelbald had taken the whole kingdom into his own hands.
Now he was in rebellion.
Whatever this "rebellion" was, Alfred thought with a shiver, it could not be good. Not from the looks on the faces of the thanes.
"Prince." It was the familiar voice of one of Ethelwulfs companion thanes. "Come along, lad," the man said now quietly. "The queen is looking for you,"
It was a moment before Alfred realized to whom the man was referring. "Oh," he said then, as enlightenment struck, "Judith!"
"Yes, the Lady Judith. She has been asking for you."
"All right," said Alfred, moving out of the shadows of his corner with sudden willingness. Perhaps Judith would know what this "rebellion" meant. "I'll come."
Princess Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, had been married to Ethelwulf three weeks before in France.
Judith was sixteen years old; Ethelwulf was fifty-three.
"Alfred," Judith said in Frankish as Alfred came through the door of her sleeping room. Not many years separated her from her stepson, and the two had become fast friends during the four-month stay the West Saxons had made at the court of France. In the easy way of children, Alfred had learned to speak simple Prankish and it was he who was tutoring Judith in Saxon. "What is happening?" she asked now, her large brown eyes darker than usual with apprehension.
"I do not know, Judith," Alfred answered, closing the door behind him. "I think my brother Ethelbald has done something bad. The thanes say it is 'rebellion.' " He said the word in Saxon. "Do you know what that means?" he asked.
Judith shook her head. "If you do not know the word, Alfred, then how can I?"
"Oh." He had not thought of that. He crossed the wooden floor and climbed into the room's second chair, which was placed, like Judith's, close to the charcoal brazier. He said, his voice troubled, "It is strange that my other brothers, Ethelbert and Ethelred, are not here to greet us."
Judith sighed with exasperation. "Your West Saxon names! They all sound the same to me!"
Alfred grinned a little. " 'Ethel' means nobly born," he said in explanation, taking obvious pleasure in being able to impart information. "It is a common beginning for the names of West Saxon nobles." He remembered an old grievance, "Of all my brothers, I am the only one not to be called by it. Even my sister is called Ethelswith!"
"You came so long after your brothers and sister," Judith said in her soft voice. "Your father has told me that you are his special gift from God. That is why you have a special name."
Alfred pushed out his lower lip. "I like the name 'Ethelwold,' " he said after a minute.
Judith said firmly, "I like 'Alfred.' "
He looked at her sideways from under long, gold-tipped lashes; then he grinned.
"How old is your brother Ethelbald?" Judith asked next.
The smile disappeared and Alfred looked earnestly at his fingers, "Ethelred is eighteen. Ethelbert is four years older than he, and Ethelbald two years more. That makes him ..." He frowned in concentration and began to count on his fingers.
"Twenty-four," Judith said finally when it became clear that Alfred had lost his way.
Alfred scowled, furious that he had not been able to do the arithmetic.
At that moment the latch on the door lifted and the door was pushed open. Both Alfred and Judith jumped to their feet as a tall, thin, gray-haired man came into the room.
"My lord," said Judith in a suddenly subdued voice.
"Father!" said Alfred in relief. As soon as Ethelwulf began to cross the floor toward them Alfred asked in Saxon, "What is 'rebellion'?"
"Rebellion," Ethelwulf, King of Wessex, repeated heavily. He turned to Judith and said the word again, in Frankish. Her eyes opened wide with sudden comprehension.
"Sit down, my dear," Ethelwulf said to his wife, speaking in his accented but relatively fluent French. He turned to Alfred. "You may take the floor, my son. My old bones have more need of a chair than do yours."
Alfred subsided with boneless ease onto the fur rug at his father's feet. "What did you say to Judith?" he said to Ethelwulf with the fearless curiosity of an indulged child. "What was that word? What is 'rebellion'?"
Ethelwulf lowered himself into the chair that Alfred had vacated and stretched his long legs before him. " 'Rebellion' is the act of raising an army against one's king," he said, meeting his son's upraised golden eyes. "It appears that your brother Ethelbald, having had a taste of kingship, has decided he does not want to give up the position."
Alfred stared at his father's face. Ethelwulf did not look worried, he thought. He merely looked tired. Whatever it was that Ethelbald was doing, it could not be as bad as Alfred had feared.
Judith was saying, "I am sorry, my lord, to hear this. But one man cannot raise a rebellion alone. Has this son of yours followers?"
"So it would seem," Ethelwulf replied.
"Not Ethelred!" Alfred interjected, in quick defense of his favorite brother.
"No, not Ethelred," his father agreed. "In fact, Ethelred and Ethelbert are awaiting me at Winchester. It appears that Osric, ealdorman of Hampshire, has raised the fyrd in my defense."
There was a moment's silence. Then Judith asked, almost diffidently, "I do not understand your words, my lord. What is the fyrd? What is an ealdorman?"
"An ealdorman is similar to a Frankish count, my dear," Ethelwulf explained. "He is a noble appointed by the king to lead the shire. He is responsible for administering the law in the shire, and he is responsible for defense. The fyrd is the militia that the ealdorman calls up from among the thanes and ceorls of his shire in time of need.
Alfred had been listening to his father's explanation with barely concealed impatience. "Father!" he said as soon as Ethelwulf had finished, "Does Ethelbald have an army?"
"Yes, my son," came the sad reply. "I very much fear that he does."
Alfred could feel the muscles in his stomach contract. "What does it all mean?" he almost whispered. "What is going to happen?"
Judith's voice, practical and cool, cut across his. "Who are Ethelbald's followers, my lord? And how many of them are there?"
Alfred's father began to rub the side of his face, a sure sign of distress. "Ethelbald's foster father is my wife's brother, Eahlstan, Bishop of Sherborne. Ethelbald has passed most of his life in the western part of the country, and it is the men from west of the great forest of Selwood who have risen to follow him."
"But the men of the east will stand with you?" Alfred stared at Judith in surprise. He had never heard her sound so ... authoritative.
"So I understand."
Judith leaned back in her chair. "Well, then, if you have your other sons with you, my lord, and all the shires to the east of this Selwood, it seems to me that Ethelbald's cause will have short shrift."
Alfred saw his father give a quick look in his direction. Then Ethelwulf smiled at Judith. "I am sure it will, my dear," he said in the falsely soothing voice that Alfred knew meant something was being kept from him. "I am sure that it will."
Alfred longed to reach Winchester. His brother Ethelred would be at Winchester, and Ethelred was the person Alfred loved most in the world. He loved his father too, of course, but Ethelred had always been the one to find time for the youngest member of the West Saxon royal family. It was Ethelred who had taught Alfred to ride, who had taught him to shoot his arrow straight and true, who had taught him to hunt. He had even promised that when Alfred returned from Rome, he would teach Alfred to use his sword as well.
Ethelred would not treat him like a baby. Ethelred would tell him what was happening. Ethelred would make him feel safe once again.
The stone walls of Winchester looked much like the Roman walls one saw everywhere in France and Italy, but Alfred found himself looking at the West Saxon capital city with different eyes this day as he rode in through the gate in his father's train. The cities of France and Italy had been far grander than the small market town of Winchester. Alfred had seen the look on Judith's face yesterday when she had first beheld the simple wooden hall that was the king's chief dwelling at Southampton. Southampton was one of the smallest of the West Saxon royal manors; but not even the largest or grandest of them, not even Wilton, remotely resembled the grandeur of the Frankish royal vils.
Alfred's heart lifted when he saw the two figures awaiting them on the steps of the royal hall.
"My brothers!" he said to Judith; but it was at one brother only that he looked.
Ethelbert and Ethelred came to greet their father in proper fashion, and then Ethelwulf presented them to Judith. Their welcome was brief; neither prince spoke Frankish and Judith's Saxon was elementary.
Then Alfred could wait no longer. "Ethelred!" he cried.
The fair-haired young man turned away from Judith and looked at the small boy on the pony. "Alfred!" he said with a laugh, imitating Alfred's distinctive clipped diction. Then Ethelred reached up his arms, plucked his small brother right out of the saddle, and swung him first high in the air and then into his arms for a big bear hug. "How is my favorite little brother?" he asked as he set the child on his feet.
Alfred beamed. "I am your only little brother," he retorted, and Ethelred laughed and ruffled his hair.
"That is why you are so precious."
Ethelwulf lifted Judith from her horse. "Come," he said to his sons. "Let us go into the hall."
The great hall of Winchester was fully as large as any king's hall that Alfred had seen in France. The hearthplace in the middle of the floor was so long that there were two fires burning on it, one at each end. The smoke curled upward and went out the open smoke vents in the roof. Carved pillars held up thick cross-beams, and there were doors on either long wall. The wooden walls were hung with brightly colored tapestries, and over the tapestries hung a collection of polished weapons and shields. Benches ringed the room, and the stone floor was covered with fresh-smelling rushes. Several of the flambeaux in the wall sconces were lit.
Perhaps it was not built of stone, Alfred thought loyally as he surveyed the room before him, but it was every bit as grand as Judith's father's palace had been. Best of all, it was home.
Ethelwulf was summoning a serving woman to take Judith to one of the two private sleeping rooms at the far end of the hall, but Judith said, "Alfred will show me."
Alfred was dismayed and looked to his father. He did not want to go with Judith; he wanted to stay here and listen to his father and his brothers talk. But Ethelwulf only said, "I am certain Alfred will be glad to show you, my dear."
Princely courtesy forced Alfred to walk forward to Judith's side and say, "This way, my lady. The room on the left."
It had been his mother's room, and he stopped at the door to stare at the unchanged setting before him. The bed was spread with a beautifully woven cover depicting a golden dragon, the symbol of their house. It had taken his mother over a year to weave that cover; she had done it all herself. The clothes chest was bound with polished brass and the stone floor was covered with the same colorful rugs that had always been there. There was a table with a chest for jewelry, now standing empty, There were two other tables holding oil lamps. Beside each table was a wicker chair, made comfortable with cushions.
"What a lovely room," said Judith. Alfred could clearly hear the surprise in her voice.
"It was my mother's," he said.
A little silence fell. Then Judith said gently, "I hope you do not mind my using it."
He thought about that. "I was surprised when you married my father," he admitted. He added with the brutal candor of childhood, "He is old and you are young."
Judith's lovely face was very still. "The match was made by my father. He deemed it a good idea to ally our two countries in this bitter time of Viking invasion."
"Then you do not mind going away from your home and your people?" Alfred was genuinely curious. When she did not immediately reply, he added, "I would not like it."
"No one asked me if I minded or no," Judith replied at last, and even a seven-year-old could distinguish the bitterness in her voice. A coldness seemed to come across her delicate features. "I am a princess of France; therefore I must marry where I am told. Such is the way of the world."
Alfred was horror-stricken. "You were not asked?"
"Princesses are never asked, Alfred." The coldness had crept into her voice as well.
"What of princes?" With the ruthless egocentricity of childhood, Alfred immediately related her situation to his. "Could I be married like that, away from my family and into a foreign land?" His eyes were huge, his voice appalled.
"No, Alfred." Judith's face softened and she came to put an arm about his shoulders. "Do not concern yourself, my dear. Such a thing could never happen to you. You are a boy. You will have some say in whom you marry."
His eyes searched her face. "Are you sure?"
"I am sure." She smiled.
"But Judith ..." Now that his own fear had been laid to rest, he could think once more of her. "That is not fair," he said.
"No." The coldness was back in her face and voice. "It is not. But it seems it is only small boys and young girls who feel thus."
He did not know what to say to comfort her. She looked so ... bleak. "Judith," he said softly, tentatively, "I am very happy that you are to have my mother's room."
Something glinted in her eyes. He hoped, anxiously, that it was not tears. "Thank you, Alfred," she said. "You are a good friend."
He smiled up at her engagingly and offered the biggest treat he could think of. "Perhaps tomorrow you can come hunting with me and Ethelred."
"We shall see," she said. "But I thank you for inviting me."
"If we get to go hunting, that is," he muttered, following her across the floor toward the clothes chest. "Bother Ethelbald and his rebellion!"