This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
I had never expected to be King. One of my uncle’s sons should have inherited the throne but they were too young when Egbert died in battle. Aged 23, I had been in command of the right wing when a sudden sea raiders’ charge cut their way through our centre. Egbert died with sword aloft surrounded by his companions. By the time I had swung my men around behind the enemy, all the King’s companions and most of their attackers were already dead.
The raiders’ leader had been among those slain. Some say he died at Egbert’s hand but that is the sort of myth that grows around any dead leader. The rest of the enemy band retreated in good order to their ships and set sail. I led the saddened but victorious war band back to our fort.
We had to replace Egbert. His sons had a better claim but were still children. I had thought one of his brothers would seek the throne but they stood aside and nominated me. I was elected by the Witan, our council of elders, and consecrated by the secret rites of the Goddess.
That was three years ago. I have been feeling my way as a King. So much is expected of me and I can do so little. I have pushed my authority and my people’s patience to the limit in those three years. I seem never to have a moment to myself, dealing with all the problems I have created by introducing change. The members of the Witan are older men and they don’t like change. My younger King’s companions just think of fighting and defence, not about crops or the skills needed to make things. It can be lonely being a King.
I have continued Egbert’s work on our fort and in my first year I insisted that a tenth of each good year’s corn harvest must be stored there. Now I am praised for my foresight because so far this year the rain hasn’t come. At the time there were many muttered curses.
The other changes I have made were even more unpopular at first but have been gradually accepted. The King’s companions, his chosen warriors, did nothing but sit around in the Royal Hall drinking when they weren’t training with their weapons. Most of the boys and young men wanted to be a King’s companion. They did nothing but train to fight or were servants at the Hall keeping the companions supplied with food and drink. The boys learned more about drinking than fighting. I reduced the number of companions and made those that were retained into weapon instructors holding classes three days a week. All the former companions were assigned to our farmers and artisans to learn a second trade. I set up classes for the young men and boys so that they too could work as well as fight. I expected the farmers and artisans to be minimally competent as fighters.
Young women were already going to the Goddess’ temple a couple of days a week for education. I was firmly warned against interference with that. I added training for girls in other trades such as weaving, preparation of skins, pottery and other useful things. I changed the male servants at the Royal Hall to handmaidens. Although called handmaidens I didn’t insist that they remained single women. A couple were already married. The result was more efficient service, better food, and part of the Hall was separated off to make space for looms. The preparation of skins and pottery were in separate buildings.
The results of those changes were having an effect. We were beginning to trade with neighbouring kingdoms because we were making more than we could use. Our metalworkers were not as good as others, but our weaving, carpentry and pottery were gaining a market.
Our fort is all that makes our realm safe. Once it was Roman, abandoned by them a couple of hundred years ago when they finally left England. My grandfather had started its restoration and Egbert had continued the work. We were not really restoring it. We don’t have the skills any more. We have patched it as best we can but our work shows as crude compared to the original.
Grandfather had cleared the outside ditches, cut down trees within a hundred paces of the fort, restored the great walls to their original height and paved the walkway. He had started collecting materials to repair the great granaries. Egbert had re-roofed the granaries with the old Roman tiles. Some of the other roofless buildings have been thatched because there weren’t enough unbroken tiles. He had blocked the North and South Gates with crude masonry and reduced the width of the West and East Gates so that a single cart could enter or leave.
We were fortunate that the water supply had still been working into the fort. Once we had found the source and repaired the dam the flow is impressive. Now the dam is shrouded in thickly planted trees and bushes. The water runs underground from the dam into the fort. An enemy would have to look very hard to find the dam, and even if they did, the water inside the fort runs through several large cisterns before emerging into a fountain and pool. The cisterns are so large that they can supply everyone inside the fort for six months even if the water supply were to be cut off outside.
There are stone lined trenches around every building. Rainwater runs off the roof into the trench and then all the trenches lead to a masonry lined pool for watering the horses and cattle. All we had done was repair the cracks in the pool’s walls and now we have two sources of water.
Water is our realm’s blessing and curse. Our fort has enough. Our land is often too dry for the crops. The real curse is the sea that laps the edge of our fort and provides ways for the raiders from the sea to strike deep into our countryside with little warning. I had lost my mother to one raid. She had been gathering nuts in the forest with my baby sister strapped to her back when the raiders found her. One raider had cut her down with a sword to stop her from raising the alarm. That sword stroke had cut my sister in half before slicing through my mother. Even the raiders’ leader had been shocked by that. The man responsible was later declared a wolfs head, a man unworthy to be trusted, and abandoned in England.
The fort is our ultimate refuge, the King’s palace, the communal granaries, the workshops for the artisans, the storehouse for anyone’s valuables, and the home for the five priestesses of the Goddess. They have taken over the former underground Mithraeum and the temple above it. We could survive a siege but since the Romans left no enemies have the ability to besiege anywhere. The raiders come but stay no longer than a couple of days before moving on to easier places to raid.
This year our crops are again in danger from lack of rain. Last year’s harvest was only moderate because the spring rains came late. The grain stored in the fort’s granaries might be all that stands between us and starvation next winter. If rain doesn’t come within the next ten days we will be facing real trouble. Even with all our trade goods we could not buy enough food for the whole kingdom. The grain stored in the fort would prevent real starvation but we would be very hungry.
We have another problem. An attack of the sweating sickness has laid many of our people low. Several older people have died recently and our babies are at risk.
What can I do? I have little experience as a King. I can ask for advice from the priestesses of the Goddess. I had already asked the priestesses to pray for a good crop this year, before a sighting of a small raiders’ fleet had sent me and most of our depleted war band on a fruitless march along our sea shores waiting for them to land. As before, the fort was manned with the older men and those recovering from injuries. It would take more enemies than we had seen to storm the fort even when it was lightly garrisoned. We had returned two days ago and there had been no rain.
I sent one of my handmaidens to ask that a priestess come to me. I could go to them but unless during some of the seasonal rites, the presence of a man in their precincts causes them much labour in re-consecrating their temple. The only time that isn’t necessary is when they execute a criminal or traitor as a sacrifice to the Goddess. I don’t know how they do that in the temple, but a bound man is delivered to them, and a shrouded corpse is returned for burial. I am pleased that I have not had to order an execution so far during my reign. Enemies captured in battle are either given a clean death by sword, or sold as slaves.
My handmaiden returned saying that a priestess would be with me within the hour. That was a real surprise. Normally they ask for at least a day to consult the Goddess. Was such a prompt response a good omen or a bad one? I waited impatiently. I had expected to wait a day. Now I was too eager when the visit was coming soon. I had ordered everyone to leave the Hall. I needed to see the priestess alone.
I was even more surprised when the priestess arrived. Helena is the oldest and chief priestess. She had been a childhood friend of my mother. She limped as she walked through the doorway. She rarely left the temple precincts. Yet she had come to me. She must have a significant message. I came down from the raised dais in the Royal Hall to greet her. I dropped to my knee and kissed her outstretched hand. I remained kneeling before her.
“Alfred, thank you for your greeting,” Helena said. “Egbert was polite to me but never bent the knee. Why do you? You are the King.”
“I may be King, Helena, but I am too aware of my limitations. I need your help. Greeting you with respect could be seen as an indication of my desperation. It isn’t. You are a wise woman and more importantly you are my mother’s friend. You need my reverence for both.”
Helena’s hand lightly brushed my head.
“Stand up, Alfred. In public you should not kneel to me. In private? I thank you for your courtesy. But you might not like my message.”
I stood up. Helena and I perched on stools beside one of our few tables.
“What is it that I might not like?”
“If we are to have a good harvest we need to invoke the Goddess with the Great Rite, Alfred.”
“The Great Rite? I know you have several rites for addressing the Goddess and asking for favours but I have never heard of the Great Rite. Why not?”
“It hasn’t been performed in your lifetime, Alfred, and possibly not in your father’s. It involves you as the King. You act for the people.”
“And what do I have to do in the Great Rite, Helena?”
“You have to humble yourself to the Goddess, and…”
Helena paused. It was obviously hard for her to tell me.
“Is that so difficult?”
“It could be. Egbert would never have done it. You? Even for you it might be awkward to accept.”
“I have just humbled myself before you, Helena. So why will the Great Rite be worse?”
“Because you have to humble yourself totally, Alfred, and not just in a momentary gesture. You will come to our temple and be a plaything for women because that will please the Goddess. She likes any worship that humiliates men. The Great Rite requires the King to be Her servant and servant to women. Sexual servant, Alfred. You will not be the instigator of sexual encounters but the victim of them, restrained for women’s pleasure.”
“I have not…”
“I know you have not, Alfred. You are a male virgin. At your age and as a King that is very unusual. Most men of your age are married and if not have mistresses. You have handmaidens but have not…”
“They trust me. I would not abuse their trust.”
“Some of them are disappointed that you have not abused their trust, as you put it, Alfred. They would be very willing to share your bed, even if they didn’t become a wife. A King’s bastard has status. So does the bastard’s mother. Yet you have no children. Perhaps, only perhaps, that displeases the Goddess. I don’t know. At the end of the Great Rite you will have a mistress, or a wife, maybe even both. That woman or women will be chosen for you by the Goddess and you cannot, must not, refuse to accept her or them.”
“So I have to take a wife as part of the Great Rite, Helena?”
“No. A woman takes you. The Goddess chooses her, and the chosen one becomes your partner for life. As King, you rule. As a man, you will be ruled by her. That is why Egbert would never have agreed to the Great Rite. He had a poor opinion of women’s abilities. He couldn’t accept a woman as his equal, and never as his ruler, and the Great Rite makes the chosen woman the ruler of the King as a man.”
“This is a hard thing that the Goddess asks of me, Helena. I have to take an unknown woman, not just as a wife or mistress, but I have to submit to her?”
“Not quite correct, Alfred. You don’t take. She does.”
“And is she any woman? Is there a list of the chosen?”
“You have to agree to accept the woman that the Goddess has chosen for you, but the women who might be that woman are selected, by the Goddess’ chief priestess, me. You can’t influence that choice. I have already made it because I expected that we would have to use the Great Rite. All I will say is that all of the women are suitable to stand beside the King. They have intelligence, learning, wisdom and perhaps more importantly from a man’s point of view they are all pleasant to look upon. Each one of them you have already met. None are the King’s close relations. That would be unseemly. Their current status matters far less than their acceptability to the Goddess. She has indicated that they are not displeasing to Her.”
“And I have no choice at all?”
“None, Alfred. No choice at all.”
“And when do I have to agree to use the Great Rite?”
“Now? This minute? This hour?”
“Now would be best, Alfred. Within the hour would be acceptable but the reason I came to you so quickly is that the Moon and Stars are right for the Great Rite to start today. A few hours’ delay and they won’t be. What you must do is appoint someone to run the Kingdom while the Great Rite is performed. Since you have been a good King, and have been away to repel our enemies, I’m sure you know who to set to rule in your place.”
“And for how long?”
“That depends on the Goddess. A couple of days at least. At worst and She doesn’t help, a couple of weeks.”
I clapped my hands. A handmaiden appeared from behind the dais.
“Ask Thane Manfred to come to me, please, Edith.” I said.
Edith left. Manfred arrived within a couple of minutes. Manfred was Egbert’s brother and one of my uncles. I had expected him to become King after Egbert but although he had been Regent before my election he had told the Witan firmly that he was a soldier, not a King for peace. He would serve when needed but he didn’t want to be King. Manfred was my most trusted advisor and chosen Deputy.
“You asked for me, King Alfred?”
“Yes, Manfred. The Chief Priestess of the Goddess wants me to invoke the Great Rite to bring rain, crops and prosperity to our people. That will take some days, maybe a couple of weeks…”
“The Great Rite?” Manfred interrupted, “isn’t that dangerous for you? Egbert wouldn’t…”
“I’m not Egbert. I don’t think it is dangerous. Difficult for me? Yes. Life-threatening? No. But we need rain. The Great Rite has to start today -within the hour. Will you take the power while I’m not available?”
“Of course, King Alfred. I will do my best.”
“I know you will. If the raiders return you know our tactics — if we have enough fit men.”
“We may have, King Alfred. Most of the young adult people are recovering.”
“Good. But I’m still worried about our children.”
I unbuckled my sword belt with the ornate Roman Centurion’s parade sword, our emblem of Kingship, and passed it to Manfred. He accepted it with a bow.
“Thane Manfred?” Helena asked, “I may send a priestess to you shortly with a request. It should be easy to grant.”
I nodded my approval.
“Of course, Priestess. I will grant it.” Manfred said.
“Whatever it is?” Helena insisted.
“Yes. I know you have care for the well-being of our people, and my King has approved, so whatever it is, it will be granted.”
“Thank you, Manfred. And now King Alfred and I must leave for the temple. Rule well.”
Priestess Helena needed my arm to support her as we left the Royal Hall. Outside two of her priestesses were waiting. They followed us as we walked the short distance to the temple entrance. Inside the poorly repaired doors we turned into a side chamber. Helena sat down on a stone bench with obvious relief. She whispered in the ear of one of the priestesses who nodded. The two priestesses left.
“That was a long way for me to walk,” she said. “I’m not as young as I was. My priestesses will get the inner sanctuary ready for the Great Rite. Will you wait with me, Alfred?”
It was a short wait during which we talked about the need for rain for our crops. Half an hour later the older one of the two priestesses returned.
“We and they are ready, Helena,” she announced.
“Go with her, Alfred, and do what she says. You can question but you must obey. Obedience is essential.” Helena stroked my arm. “Remember that you are doing this for our people. Go!”
I followed the priestess. We descended into a dark passageway lit by a couple of flickering lamps. At the end was a heavy door covered in bronze plaques. We stopped before it. Even in the poor light I could see that the metalwork was exquisite, far beyond the skills of our best craftsman. The light flickered on the central panel showing Mithras killing the bull. I sighed at the loss of skills since the Romans had left.
“King Alfred,” the priestess said before pausing. “That is the last time you will be called King. No free man passes this door.”
I looked at her.
“I said ‘no free man’,” she repeated. “Beyond that door you are not a King. You are a slave, a slave to women and to the Goddess. Before you enter I must put on your slave collar, your chains, and you must be stripped naked. This is your last chance to refuse.”
“I do not refuse,” I said firmly. “I am undertaking the Great Rite for my people.”
“That is the best reason, Alfred. Please strip for me. That is my last request. There will be no more requests, only orders to a slave.”
I stripped. The priestess took each item of clothing from me, folded them carefully and laid them in a niche to the left of the door. She went to a niche on the right side, opened a wooden box and took out an iron collar.
“Kneel, slave,” she ordered.
I knelt. She clasped the collar around my neck and clamped it shut before attaching a leather leash.
“That collar is inscribed with the three names of the Goddess to show you are Her slave. Now your chains…”
From the same wooden box she pulled out a heavy mass of iron. She fastened shackles around my wrists, threaded a light chain through loops on them before locking it around my waist. The loose end fell to the floor with a loud noise.
“Stand, slave,” she ordered.
More shackles went around each of my ankles. The end of chain was split to attach to each ankle restraint. I could only take short steps and couldn’t raise my hands more than six inches above my waist.
“Kneel again, slave.” The priestess emphasised the word ‘slave’.
“You will be blindfolded before you pass that door. There are aspects of the Goddess you should not see. Your blindfold will be removed when you are in your proper place.”
She covered my head with a thick black cloth hood. She pulled a drawstring to tighten it around my neck. I couldn’t see and my breathing was laboured.