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A Husband's Price

Five gold coins was the price of my husband. Five gold coins for the slaying of Osgar son of Hincmar, a well-respected man in Aldburg. Five gold coins for a strong youth killing his weakened elder. Five gold coins for my beloved’s blood spilling out of his body. Five gold coins for the man I loved most to die in the darkest of nights, sputtering and gasping for breath. Five gold coins is a paltry sum. What fee can buy a husband’s love? A father’s care? A freeman’s fealty? That was no worthy trade. Weaker women are fond of weregild. They accept the man-price for slaughter and are freed of their duty to their kinsmen. But I remember the old ways of our people, passed down from ancient days when the Eorlingas were still the Éotheod. Only blood can pay for blood.

Those of lesser love might accept that bargain, but I was never so willing to be robbed. Modern custom suggests I accept this fee. Perhaps for any other man I might have paid it. But Osgar was not a mere man. Ours was a blessed love that gave life and beauty to all things once lifeless and plain. Tunbeorht son of Beorht has slain my husband, and the world is full of death. The sun glows the color of blood and flesh, and the moon the color of ash and bone.

I remember that day well. A scop of questionable character but fine words took the savage Blóstma off our hands for a visit with the barber Ealuthryth. I did not mind his intentions for it gave us a moment to ourselves. I wore a thin blue cloak of Stoningland embroidered with swans about my shoulders. I was fond of it, and Osgar always thought it handsome on me, so I wore it often. He wore his sword, as befitted his status, and a sark from Mundburg we bought at the Thing a decade ago, dark grey and embroidered with crimson blessings in their tongue. We walked together through the street, my hand in his and a cool spring breeze blowing in the air. He said he would surprise me with a gift. True to his word, he presented me with a fine golden necklace of much worth and high craftsmanship. That was the better of two gifts that day.

We passed by the shining mead hall of Aldburg when a throng of young warriors in glittering hauberks burst through its doors and barreled down the steps. They were led by the son of Beorht. My husband’s eyes locked with Tunbeorht’s, and that moment I knew. He would fight Tunbeorht for his rightful place as gildwísa, leader of the frithgild. The worse of his gifts was death.

I begged him not to fight. Osgar was fine in a warband, like how he rode in the frithgild, but he was growing older. I did not tell him this myself, of course. But I could feel it. I knew it. When he came home from sparring and ached more than he did the year before. When he ate less and slept less and his stomach grew more than his strength. When he could no longer bear to ride in all seasons, when winter stayed him. When we lay together unclothed in the dark at night, his vigor was drained. He could fight the enemies of the king’s peace. But he could not fight Tunbeorht. I knew this well.

Tunbeorht, the bastard, knew this too. He trained with Osgar most days of the week, and he knew how they would fare. They laughed together, once, at Éomer Lord’s table. They shared drink from the golden cup and broke bread at Éomer’s hall. I begged the youth not to accept Osgar’s challenge. The wealth of his years is worth more than a little cowardice, I said. But young men’s blood runs hot, and Tunbeorht could not let go of his pride enough to deny my husband. At sundown three days later, Osgar cast off his cloak for the last time.

They faced each other, bare-chested and armed alike, with axe and shield. Around the traditional dueling-cloak they paced, eyeing each other for a weakness. I looked at Osgar’s body unsullied for the last time. I remember every part of him, from the axe in his hand to the secret thoughts at night none but I knew. I knew every battle he fought before then, every scar across his skin, every mark upon his flesh. I knew him when he was young and more handsome, before age had begun the slow ruin of both our bodies. That is all gone now.

Osgar moved first. As he always did. With the dull thud of shields, they came together in a moment, a storm of whirling limbs, splintered wood, and clashing steel. Then they split apart, my husband on the ground with deep gashes in his chest and shoulder, his crimson blood staining the gildwísa’s axe above him. Tunbeorht kicked away Osgar’s axe and raised his own high above his head. Then he looked to me and said, I shall not kill him. That is my mercy to him, my brother of the frithgild. And my mercy to you, friend of my mother.

Kill me, Osgar said. Be a man and kill me!

Tunbeorht turned to go. He looked once over his shoulder, laughed, then picked up his shield and walked away.

It was false mercy. Osgar came home with me that night, drowning in his own blood. The healer Layfled looked over his wounds and worked her art, but it was to no avail. When he coughed, blood trickled down his beard and onto his chest and our bed. When he tried to move, he groaned in pain. It was hard to see him suffer so. In his last moments, I sat at his bedside, joined by my grandchildren—Adalred and Elfleda—Layfled the healer, and our savage guest, Blóstma. He gripped my hand tightly, and spoke to me alone in a voice barely above a whisper.

Gather our kinsmen, all of them. Even Garsig in his exile. Tell them I am dead and must be avenged. Only blood can pay for blood. Remind the Thane of Stangard of my nephew’s duty, if you must. He must counsel Adalred. The sons of Wusfrea shall be destroyed.

He died that night. For the first time in many months, I slept alone. It is colder now without his arms around me and harder than ever to sleep. For ten days, while his new clothes for his journey to meet the Lord of Lords were being sewn, I wept. On the second day, though it was unneeded, Tunbeorht’s mother, Lefsued, came to offer reparations: Osgar’s weregild of five gold coins. She was always a weak woman. Afraid of the feud to come, afraid of the price of my husband’s death. I cast her out of my home and flung her coins at her feet. Only blood can pay for blood.

On the tenth day, the folk of Aldburg feasted together and remembered my husband while I sat alone in a place of honour. Éomer Lord’s hall suddenly seemed strange and new to me. The air was thick and black with smoke the color of old blood, and the light that shone in through his windows was the red of new blood. Many of his fellows and mine came to console me, but I brushed them off. I could not weep in the presence of Tunbeorht and his kin. Perhaps I am too soft in my vengeance, but once I smiled sadly through the smoke of the fire pit at Hilda, Ealuthryth’s daughter and a serving girl at the hall. She was a fine and beautiful young woman, but friends with Tunbeorht. I hated to think she would suffer. But she must. She knows she must, as I know I must. Only blood can pay for blood.

They lay my husband into the grave with all the goods a man like him deserved. His weapons: his sword, his axe, his spear, his seax. His armor: his green shield, his shining hauberk, his pale helm. Drink and fruit to bear to the Unknown Lord’s hall: sweet mead, cherries, strawberries, raspberries. Fine rings, necklaces, coins, and precious gems were placed in chests beside his corpse. As his wife, and the closest woman in his family, I sang a dirge before the mound:

Now dear Osgar rests in darkness.
The son of Hincmar, the lord of my heart,
father of three, strong and fair,
companion in the cruelest years.
No harp can wake the wounded warrior.
No cup is held by the honoured hero.
Though the place is set, his seat is vacant
at the table. I am alone.
An evil death befell my darling,
and now our hearth, and too my heart
grow cold and dark from wicked death. 

Last, the wise man Odalric son of Wulfheah, skilled in the secrets of runes and carvings, placed a staff of oak into the mound etched thus:


Now all the mourners have left. Alone in this cold and empty bed, I pray my husband is judged well by the All-father. Against my better judgement, I whispered a quiet prayer for my own death so that perchance I could see him again. I lie awake now, listening through the old walls of our house to the muffled sounds of night, waiting for Adalred and Blóstma to return. I wait for my nephew Garsig to arrive from Stangard. I wait for the death of our family’s enemies. I wait for blood.