AN ANGLO-SAXON GHOST STORY – THE DEVIL’S GAME

An Anglo-Saxon Ghost Story – The Devil’s Game

This is the first of my Father Eadred short murder stories. Clearly fiction but as with my novel, Under Lynden Church, one that is illuminated by what we know of Anglo-Saxon England, its practices and beliefs. Please read on. Who is the murderer?

The Accused

Wolfstan coughed again – the third time following Byrhtnoth’s question.

‘Answer!’ The headman glowered and kicked against a tree trunk.

Edwin watched Wolfstan’s lips. Surely, silence now would confirm his brother-in-law’s guilt. He had been seen leaving the village, heading for the river. How could he deny it?

St Peter's church, Bradwell. Built by St Cedd
St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, built by St Cedd, Bishop of the East Saxons, in 654 AD (photo by author)

Almost all of the freemen from Hildericstow and several neighbouring settlements – close to fifty souls in total – stood in a semi-circle. Four main families; the same four who had neighboured for generations. A stiff autumn breeze caused the elderly to pull their cloaks closer. They faced the community’s headman, Byrhtnoth, who spoke of a murder; the first such horror in close to a decade. To the side of the headman, kneeling, bound hand and foot, a man trembled.

Human figures running; a confusion of times and memories; barely controlled fears; all swarmed in the prisoner’s mind; and his body ached with the terror. He didn’t recognise the man being questioned.

His answer came.

“I was not with her: I swear!” Wolfstan wept. “Aelswith must have been fetching water. I was still asleep. She must have slipped on the mud. I couldn’t hurt her; she was the mother of my children.”

No-one believed him – he knew. It was written in their faces.

“She had a weapon wound; a stab through the shoulder. It was no accident.”

“Who would want to harm Aelswith?” A villager vented his venom at the prisoner. “There’s no strangers in the village. No one held a grudge. The opposite; we felt pity for your wife. Your miserable complaints about another child and the abuse; loud, foul, drunken abuse. Aelswith endured too much in her short life. Now she will have justice.”

Most of the community voiced their support for the comment. A few of Wolfstan’s kin kept their silence. Many there had known Aelswith since a child. They had watched her grow. They had shared her heart’s desires. They had seen them dashed in a cruel marriage.

The wretched prisoner shook his head.

“I wouldn’t harm my wife; no matter what I might have said with drink. On the Holy Bible, I swear that’s the truth. I am a poor man and husband, known for drinking and laziness, but I wouldn’t harm my eternal soul.” Wolfstan’s voice quavered. He looked at someone then another – pleading. They looked away.

With their lord yet to return from campaigning on the Mercian border, the ealdorman had charged Byrhtnoth, headman of the vill, with seeing that the King’s justice was upheld. In more settled times, he wouldn’t have been asked to bear such a heavy, unwelcome challenge and he trod carefully.

“You have no oath-helpers?”

Wolfstan shook his head, weeping.

With no-one in the community prepared to support Wolfstan, the headman faced an obvious decision. He hesitated. Wolfstan was a loathsome creature. He had made Aelswith’s life a misery – she wore the bruises – but to kill her? Byrhtnoth had thought through his next move.

A Pagan Revealed

“Father Eadred cares for the community’s spiritual needs and can call on the name of the Lord God to see into our hearts. He is needed now. I have asked him to speak for I fear there is great evil at work. More than our eyes can see.”

Wolfstan moaned. Edwin had waited for this moment, ever since his sister’s body had been found almost a week earlier, face down in the river on the outskirts of the village. He feared Wolfstan might have escaped, for it made no sense to kill the woman that supported his indolence, but he wouldn’t walk free now.

“It is true that there is nothing men can hide from God,” the priest spoke solemnly.  “He made all creation and gave to his Church the power to find the truth in men’s hearts. To lie before God; to seek to hide from the King’s justice; is a sin and it is God who will be the judge. The punishment will be terrible – everlasting torment.” Father Eadred looked into the eyes of the accused.

“Wolfstan, you are a baptised Christian?”

“I am Father. I am a true Christian.”

“Do you love the Lord God alone and have no other gods or spirits that you call upon?”

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village (photo by author)
West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village (photo by author)

“Never Father. I know it is wrong to do so. I follow only the Lord God.”

“You have been seen committing lewd acts upon yourself in the earthen circle atop Lynton Hill.”

“No Father. I wouldn’t do such a thing.”

“Stop now!” The headman admonished the crowd. The laughter faded.

“You had a wife!”

Wolfstan’s face flushed with blood.

“It was to gain a blessing for my crops. So I could pay my dues and tithes and feed my family. In times past, I sacrificed a lamb or spilled my own blood.”

“The circle is damned! You know it. Have I not warned everyone to keep their distance? The devil’s spawn built that place as their home.”

“Who said they saw me?”

“I saw you, Wolfstan, when I went to fight the demons by prayer to protect my community.

“And what name was on your lips when you defiled yourself?” Wolfstan’s head dropped. The priest moved closer to him, staring into his eyes. “What name did you call upon?”

Wolfstan searched the faces of his kindred. They looked away.

“You know the name”, he whispered. “Someone say it.” But no one helped.

“The spirit who has always cared for my family. She dwells in all of my kin. We have always put our seed into her; sacrificed ….”

“It is a demon, you fool! From your own lips, you admit to calling on demons. I have warned against the dark powers in that accursed circle. They bewitch and tempt. Ordinary men cannot prevail. But against the Holy Word you went there to commune with demons. You have turned your back on the Lord God’s protection.”

Father Eadred faced the headman.

“I fear Wolfstan was bewitched into sacrificing his wife.”

“No,” Wolfstan wept. “Father, I didn’t understand the words you spoke. I have only done what my kin have always done but I swear I never called evil down upon my wife. I would never cause her such harm.”

Edwin had never seen Wolfstan look so wretched. The accused garbled on, increasingly incomprehensible. The noose was tightening. He felt pity but not for long. The headman continued.

“Wolfstan says he was asleep when his wife went to draw water from the river. Aethelred the smith has said he saw her with her buckets and they spoke. Later, he saw a man heading the same way but was too distant to see his face. He thought it was Wolfstan for the man wore a cloak and cap that were Wolfstan’s.”

“I have told you; they were stolen from me while I slept. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Silence!” The headman’s reluctance had passed. The priest had condemned Wolfstan and smoothed the path for the headman’s decision.

Coppiced rods
A stand of recently-cut coppiced rods to be used for building (photo by author)

Execution

Dark clouds raced across the vast expanse of fenland sky and rain began to pound the gallows. The king’s representative read quickly. The crime was confirmed: murder at the behest of demons, and the terrible sentence inevitable. Rain hammered into the knot of people present to witness the execution; the howling wind and its direful voices unnerving even the bravest.

“I hear the voices of hell calling for Wolfstan. Pray for our protection, priest.”

As the final moments came, Edwin wept. He had guaranteed his brother-in-law’s awful end; supporting the smith’s sighting of Wolfstan in the early light, following his wife to the river’s edge.

Crimes against the king and God with each to exact punishment. Wolfstan was to hang until dead then his body would be mutilated, beheaded and thrown into an unmarked grave in unconsecrated soil. A rock was to hold him fast so his evil spirit could not harm the living and he would never enter Paradise.

He was still sobbing, pleading his innocence, when the sign was given and the stool pushed away. His death was slow; the remainder of the sentence quick. No one wanted to linger among the evil dead, at a place where men could hear the demons cackle and feel their breath.

Outrage

Aelswith’s first anniversary came and went. Edwin struggled with his memories: his sister’s hard life and lonely death, Wolfstan’s futile pleas for mercy, and his own role in Wolfstan’s execution.

The pain from the crime refused to loosen its hold. Aelswith’s four children had gone to live with their surviving grandparents but it was the eldest girl, Bertha, who took on the burden of caring for the younger ones. Even with her devotion and the help Edwin could provide, the two youngest perished. They were buried in their mother’s grave in the community’s churchyard.

The scream pierced the night. Then again and again. Torches flickered, leading men, torn from sleep, to run bewildered between the houses.

“Murder!”

“In God’s name, I saw a spirit, white, glowing as a candle.”

Disembodied spirit
A spirit, glowing as a candle (photo by author)

That was the beginning. Doors were thrown open in the dark hours; sheep and cattle let loose to wander through the woods; strange winds rose and fell. Villagers winding their way home at dusk, chatting wearily of their domestic concerns, ran for their lives at the sudden sight of black beasts, bounding from hell’s gates; their eyes burning red hot.

“Bertha, what’s happened?” Edwin ran towards his niece. She stood sobbing with Father Eadred in the churchyard.

“Lord God protect us. What evil is this?”

Before him his sister’s grave gaped open, like an ugly, vicious wound. Her body, wrapped in a winding sheet, lay between those of her two children, like giant maggots. He retched at the sight and the smell. Bertha wrapped herself around him, weeping, unable to speak.

Eadred wiped the tears from his face. His hands shaking.

“No Christian man would do this. The evil signs we have witnessed over past weeks; this is surely the same demonic spirit.” The priest bent forward to wipe the earth from the broken wooden cross that once stood over the grave. Some letters had been scratched upon it. ‘We died before our time.’

Bertha screamed and fell to the ground. Edwin moaned.

To the Lair of Demons

The group moved slowly uphill with the priest encouraging the laggards. They were not dragging a man to his violent death this time. That was hard but it was their lawful duty. This journey had no such certainty.

The community had met and, led by Father Eadred, struggled to the decision that it could not continue with the evil that was encircling them. More would die and the parents of those soon to be born feared what would emerge at birth after the air they had breathed had been tainted.

Demons
The Doomstone, York Minster (photo by author)

Wolfstan’s grave had to be opened. Father Eadred had no idea what they would find. They came ready to smash Wolfstan’s skull; to pinion his body – whatever it took to send his dark spirit back to the underworld. If he were not there at all then Eadred was ready to petition the bishop for help; for greater power and knowledge than he possessed would be needed.

They came in the morning, so their sacred work could be completed during daylight and they would be back in their church saying fervent prayers before nightfall.

It took some time to agree where the body was most likely to lay, as there was no marker but, at least, there had been no executions since Wolfstan’s to disturb the soil. The sun’s beams shone upon them as they began to dig under the shadow of a cross Eadred had erected and while he read from the Bible and sprinkled holy water over the soil to blast the evil that dwelt there.

The deeper the hole became, the darker became the sky.

A Sense of Evil (photo by author)
A sense of evil (photo by author)

“Dig! The Lord God protects us. You are caring for your families. Do not fear.” Then the wind lifted and the air howled, blowing the soil back into the grave.

“Merciful God, who rules Heaven and earth, listen to your poor people. Strengthen us as we purify this place of damnation and as we prepare to send evil back to hell.” Eadred sprinkled more holy water and incanted in Latin, raising his voice to better the groans of the dark spirits that circled around him.

“In the name of the Lord God, creator of all things, seen and unseen, I command that you, black demons, leave the world of men and return to your haunt of hell. You have no place here with God’s people. Now go and take your stench with you!”

As fearful as he was, Eadred felt a surge of strength as he ordered the spirits to leave. He heard his voice ringing out powerfully, reciting holy words; feeling their power; striking the evil one and his following.

He was born to be a warrior for Christ but this was his greatest battle. His faith held the village men at their task, as the clouds opened.

“Do not run, my brothers, I feel God’s strength is with us. He will not abandon us in this fight. Now, dig and scoop the water from the hole.”

When a spade lifted a decomposing hand into the air, Eadred’s courage was tested. Two of the villagers scrambled from the hole and ran, screaming.

“Hold fast. Here is Wolfstan’s body.” The priest pushed the bones away and plunged his hand into the mud. By the hair, he pulled the putrefying orb from the slime and flung it from the hole. Still, he shouted sacred words.

The priest clambered from the pit and taking an axe smashed the skull into a thousand sherds. Singing a psalm, he returned to the grave. Wolfstan may be dead in body but the priest was battling with his wicked spirit – the spirit that had communed with the devil and sacrificed his own wife. He used his axe to smash the body to pieces then pulled himself out of the hole.

“Now, fill it!” The three remaining villagers needed no persuasion.

The acrid but comforting smell of smoke welcomed the last of the villagers home from their ordeal. Warming, rich broth and ale was handed round and there was a sense of victory – that the community had fought hard and won a spiritual battle. Father Eadred smiled back at those who praised him. He took the ale that was offered and spoke a quick prayer, saying that on the morrow they should join together in thanks to the Almighty God and to complete the task of protecting the community from the demons who had sought to harm them.

Tired but happy that he had led the attack against evil, Father Eadred sat back in his chair, in the house where he stayed when in Hildericstow. He stoked the fire and poured another cup of ale from the jug he had carried with him from the hall. He dozed for a while then read from the psalms by candlelight, delighting in the hidden, mystical meanings that he saw for the first time. The Lord God was there, in Eadred’s house, talking to him alone, face-to-face.

When his eyes struggled to read further, Eadred gulped down the remainder of the jug and was soon asleep. He woke an hour later, cold and fuddled, and fell into bed.

With his faith burning fiercely inside him, the following day Eadred led the whole community in procession around the boundary of its fields and woods to purify them. The cross was held high, the villagers singing psalms, and at each part of their settlement where there was fear that dark spirits may lurk, Eadred shouted abuse at them and ordered their departure in the name of the most high Jesus Christ.

Beyond the Village (photo by author)
Beyond the Village (photo by author)

The Devil’s Game

Aethelred listened as carefully as he could. Years of working in his forge had left its own sound to dwell in his ears. Unless he looked directly into the face of a speaker, he struggled to understand their meaning. It was important now to account for every word spoken to him for lives hung in the balance. His eyes bulged in concentration.

“You are accused of murdering Aelswith and blaming the deed on the unfortunate Wolfstan.”

“That is not so! Why would I murder my own sister? Wolfstan was justly identified and has paid for his crime. Why am I now accused?” Edwin stared at his accuser – Aethelred the smith.

Byrhtnoth, the headman, looked uneasy; he had been chastised severely by the ealdorman for handling Wolfstan’s trial poorly and executing an innocent man. This was a harsh criticism, Byrhtnoth responded, for the whole community had condemned Wolfstan and Father Eadred had also. Not one man had supported his innocence. The headman balked at asking the ealdorman how he would have dealt with the trial; still, this time he had to be right or lose his position and worse, his honour.

At Snailwell Minster, where he had been called by the bishop, Father Eadred acknowledged that he had been party to the execution of the wrong man but he blamed Wolfstan for his own death.

“If a man consorts with demons, as Wolfstan did many times, then he brings evil upon himself. Wolfstan lost his life through his own foolish actions and in so doing let the killer keep his. The devil is laughing.” The bishop agreed.

“Return to Hildericstow as my representative at the trial. There is more here than our eyes can see. Pray fervently that the evil one does not prevail for he is sowing doubt and fear in the people’s hearts. The Church must fight. Keep vigil tonight and leave at daybreak.”

Incest

Byrhtnoth grew anxious. Father Eadred had not yet returned but the ealdorman wanted the matter brought to a quick end. So, despite the knot in his stomach, he started.

“Where are your oath-helpers?” He already knew Edwin’s response.

“I have none. I am deserted.”

“Aethelred, the smith, accuses you.”

“The smith has already spoken! He said he saw Wolfstan, not me, the morning Aelswith died.”

“He has more to say and I will listen carefully to what is said, even though not one man will swear for you.

Norman Agricultural Year Font, St Mary’s Church, Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk (photo by author)

“Aethelred, a man has already died on your memory, so think carefully what you say; your honour and your soul are at stake.” The smith nodded solemnly. “You wish to speak against Edwin?” Aethelred listened carefully and nodded once more.

The headman, as he anticipated, had to quieten Edwin. Aethelred continued.

“This hangs heavy on my soul. The morning Aelswith died, I did see a man following her, as I said. I called out, wishing Wolfstan – for it seemed to be Wolfstan – a good morning and told him to run after his wife for she were ahead of him with two buckets. He raised his hand to me and quickened his step but did not speak, as far as I could tell. I then ran after him, and shouted that he owed me a penny for the plough I repaired. He shouted back that he would pay me once he had sold some hams he was curing.

“I was happy enough and went back to my forge. I never thought on it again until a few weeks back, when evil spirits troubled us on Wolfstan’s anniversary.

“Poor old Wolfstan had no hams that year, none of the village did, if you remember, but one. And that was Edwin and he made a pretty penny from them too.”

“You’re almost deaf. How would you know what was said to you?” Edwin cried out.

“When money’s concerned, I hear clear enough, boy!”

“This is foolishness. How can you believe a man who’s deaf and was silent for a year before speaking?” Edwin raised his arms, pleading with the court.

“But I have more to say. Much more. Listen to me, all of you!” The smith’s voice rose even higher.” My ears aren’t what they used to be but my eyes are sound, Edwin. My eyes saw you.

“Last week, I was walking home through Abba’s wood as the light was fading and I saw Edwin with his niece, Bertha, standing away from the track. I looked carefully, as I thought my eyes were deceiving me. But there ain’t anything wrong with my eyes. Edwin and Bertha were kissing and not like kin. And his hand, it was lifting her dress, higher and higher!”

“That’s a lie!” Edwin bellowed.

“Why would I lie? Tell me? A man has died because I was slow-witted. I need to make amends or my soul is at risk. I have thought carefully about what I saw and I have confessed to the priest. Father Eadred asked me to speak and I have.”

Edwin struggled against his captors, ignoring the headman’s orders for silence. A guard punched him in the stomach; he fell back gasping.

“Bring Bertha now, so she may speak.”

“It weren’t her fault.” One of her friends, Emma, cried. “She has suffered too much already.”

“Quiet. She must speak.

The headman spoke carefully; slowly. He faced a young woman whose fear and frailty were obvious but they couldn’t mask a subtle beauty, not yet wasted by life’s perennial troubles but bearing some wounds.

“Bertha, I know this is hard for you but to lie to this court is a crime. I have no wish to ask this but I must. Has Edwin taken advantage of you? Do you understand my meaning?”

The poor girl fell to her knees and lay weeping. The headman hesitated but repeated the question.

She nodded eventually.

“Did Aelswith, your mother, know?” He repeated the question.

“Lord, she did.” Her voice faded.

“Louder, Bertha. We must all hear.”

“She asked me to lay with him. So did my father.”

The headman shook his head, as if his ears were impaired. This was beyond belief; she was a girl who had no protection but her parents.

“I was told often that Edwin helped my family. He is a wealthy man with no children of his own. My father did nothing to support us. Aelswith said Edwin wanted only one thing in return.” There were more gasps from the crowd; Edwin covered his face.

“Bertha, did you have a hand in your mother’s murder?”

“No, never. I could never do such evil.” The young woman burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Suddenly, she collapsed.

The headman looked askance. The effort of swimming in a whirlpool of twisted passions to find the truth was more than he wanted. It would be far easier to have Edwin face an ordeal of iron or water but the bishop had declined to oversee an ordeal, so it wouldn’t happen.

“Take her away gently and care for her.” The headman looked at the young woman’s friend, Emma, who was already nursing Bertha’s head, soothing it with a wet cloth.

“You have the murderer. Bring him to justice. Why do you persecute poor Bertha.” How much more suffering will she have to bear.” Emma spat on the ground.

Would this day never end! The headman had had enough.

“The awful crimes of murder and incest have been committed. Where God’s justice must be served, the guidance of Holy Church should be sought. Father Eadred will return to us later today. We will hear from him tomorrow.”

Reflection

When Father Eadred left the church, it was well past midnight. His feet crunched through a film of frost, as he returned, cold and lonely, to his own house. The resumption of Edwin’s trial the following day, and the part he must play in it, troubled him greatly. He had returned from Hildericstow earlier and had spent much of the day in prayer and fasting, searching for God’s guidance – and also his forgiveness.

He knew his mistake. He had been so angered by the power that the old ways continued to exert among the villagers. Why could they not accept the truth? He was determined to root out blind superstition. At all costs? No – but blinded by his fury, he had participated with fervour and certainty in a wrongful execution.

Yet, he still felt the presence of evil in the village; not a vague unease but a palpable force, like swollen rivers muscling against their banks, weakening them until they gave way. His task was to strengthen the people against the wiles of the evil one, for there would always be darkness in a sinful world.

Edwin’s awful crimes could not go unpunished but Father Eadred believed in a just and merciful God and prayed that Edwin would repent. As Father Eadred went to bed, he was still praying for guidance and for the chance to atone for his own fateful mistakes. The jug was empty and he was grateful that the edge of his fear had been dulled, if only for a few hours.

Resolution

“Edwin, no man has come forward to support you. You must now face the king’s justice but I am not here to condemn you but to urge you to speak honestly. It is the Lord God who will be our final judge and I pray that you will answer me with the same words that you will choose to speak to our Lord when your time comes. Falsehoods will only weigh on your soul.”

Eadred spoke to a man who already seemed to be standing on the gallows – grey, withered, dejected.

“At Wolfstan’s trial you said that you visited his house the morning of Aelswith’s murder and neither he nor his wife were there. Was that the truth?”

After some prompting, Edwin answered quietly.

“I lied, Father. I never went to their home. After my sister was found dead, I believed that Wolfstan had killed her. He had been the worst of husbands. I said what I needed to say to bring him to justice.”

Edwin raised his hand to acknowledge the abuse that greeted his words.

“Brothers, I know I’m no better than Wolfstan. Bertha is young and defenceless. In my heart, I wanted to protect her from the men who had preyed on her vulnerability but I was unable to resist her beauty myself and took advantage of her weakness. I am wretched and will pay for my sins.”

Edwin raised his manacled hands and wept.

“Who will care for her when I am gone?”

To the priest’s next question, he replied angrily.

“No, of course I didn’t! I did not kill my sister. I have sinned with my niece. I own it. But I would not kill.”

The priest turned to quieten the villagers. He stood silently for a while, pondering Edwin’s words. Surely not! He thought on and then realised that maybe, finally, he had understood the crime but he needed to tread carefully. He needed to ask a few more questions.

Father Eadred asked the headman’s indulgence to speak again to the smith and to Bertha’s friend, Emma. With his wish granted by the headman, Eadred announced the two names.

Final Testimony

The smith was clearly unimpressed but with some stern words from the headman, he came to the front of the court. Father Eadred continued.

“Aethelred, you gave testimony that you saw Aelswith on her way to the river with her buckets the day she was murdered and saw Edwin follow her some small time after?”

“That was what I swore and I swear it again if I must.”

“But you were at first uncertain whether it was Wolfstan or Edwin?”

“As I swore several days past, my memory was at first lacking. I told you about the hams; that made me think again. I am certain now that it was Edwin.”

“Aethelred, no one else saw Aelswith or Edwin journey to the river that morning.”

“And what of it? It was early and most were still abed.”

“What if it were neither Wolfstan nor Edwin who followed Aelswith?”

“I know what I saw.”

“Aethelred the smith, I accuse you of murdering Aelswith and more. Through your lies, Wolfstan went to his wrongful execution and you would have done the same to Edwin.”

The smith laughed.

“The whole village will swear that my oath is good. I have done no wrong.”

“Edwin has admitted his lie. It is your word alone that must be judged now. And I bring this suit also to gain justice for the poor girl, Bertha. The young innocent was preyed upon not only by her uncle but also by you. I have found out more than you would like me to know and will speak at your trial.

The King’s Justice

“Fill my cup again and tell me how you found the truth.” The bishop held out the empty vessel for Father Eadred to fill with wine. “And stoke the fire, will you. Winter’s biting early this year.” Eadred then filled his own cup and seeing the bishop’s eagerness, he began.

“Edwin was base in what he did with Bertha and will pay for it. Yet when he cried out in his misery that there would be no-one now to protect his niece, I thought again about what had happened.

“One-by-one, Bertha’s protectors were being removed. First, Aelswith then Wolfstan and finally, Edwin was to hang. We might say truthfully that her parents were poor in their care for they allowed Edwin to abuse his trust as her uncle. But that was not always so. I discovered something that I’ll tell you soon – and Edwin did provide protection and life’s necessities for Bertha and her brothers and sisters, as long as he could lie with her.

“Once Edwin had owned his lie about seeing Wolfstan the morning of his sister’s murder, the whole story was based on one man’s words – the smith – and they were also a lie.”

The bishop looked confused.

“Tell me again, Eadred, as I didn’t fully understand what you were saying at the trial. Why should we believe Edwin that he didn’t murder his sister but disbelieve the smith. Surely, Edwin also had reason to kill Aelswith and Wolfstan, for they knew of his incest, which he desired to keep unknown? The smith said as much.”

“I admit it is difficult and I prayed earnestly for wisdom. It came to me that while the truth is not always clear for the devil seeks to hide it with lies, it can be discerned, even if not seen completely at first. If we have two choices then the one that asks us to accept less fanciful thoughts will be closer to the truth.

“Are we to believe that Edwin murdered his sister and falsely accused his brother-in-law to keep his incest secret? Not one person in Hildericstow knew of his detestable behaviour anyway. Why would Bertha’s parents divulge it for they continued to gain much from the arrangement? And why would Edwin leave Bertha alive, a good twelve months after her parents’ death, for she too could expose the secret.

“Or are we to believe that Aethelred murdered Aelswith and devised a story to lead Wolfstan then Edwin to the gallows?

“Bertha told me that a few months before her mother’s murder, and when her womanly parts were beginning to develop, the smith began coveting her as a wife but she had no desire to marry an objectionable man twice her age. But he had persisted in his quest in a vulgar, violent fashion. Bertha told me that Aelswith  always stood by her and her wish to refuse the smith but he is a strong and abusive man, so both Aelswith and Bertha came to accept Edwin’s support, even though it developed in a dark fashion. With no man to stand up to the smith – for Wolfstan was useless – Edwin’s attentions brought Bertha some protection.

“There are some folk in the community who knew of the smith’s rough intentions but none knew of Edwin’s darkness. Yet it was a poor decision to choose one evil man over another. It also led to Aelswith’s death for in his fury, the smith stalked her that morning and killed her by the river.”

“It was Aethelred’s wanton lust for Bertha that led him to devise the strategy to remove her protectors. When she was left isolated and powerless, he hoped to have her.

“Aethelred murdered Aelswith and threw the blame on Wolfstan, who was little liked and known as a wastrel. I also fell into the smith’s trap because I was blinded by the desire to punish Wolfstan for the dark magic he practiced.

“But why did Aethelred wait a year or more before accusing Edwin of murder?” The bishop rubbed his ear, as he did when vexed.

“I think he was waiting for Aelswith’s and Wolfstan’s anniversaries. It was he who exposed the bodies of Aelswith and her two children to create anxiety in our community. He wanted us to believe that Wolfstan’s spirit came back on the anniversary of his hanging because he had been wrongly executed and the smith was intending then to implicate Edwin in Aelswith’s murder. He hoped the community would be in such fear that we would sentence Edwin without thought.

“When the smith saw Edwin in intimate embrace with Bertha, jealousy and lust overcame him. In the same way that he had used Wolfstan’s crime of indulging in dark magic to make us believe he was also capable of murder, the smith was hoping to use Edwin’s incestuous fornication to show that he was evil enough to be capable of killing.

“But it was when I said to Aethelred that Bertha had preferred incest over marriage to him that his anger finally exposed the truth. He hurled abuse, saying Edwin was no husband to Bertha. The smith went further, saying that Christ was with him for our Saviour would want Bertha to be free of her objectionable parents.”

Aethelred was executed a few days later. Additional to his numerous crimes was added that of interfering with the bodies of Christian dead, buried in consecrated ground.

Edwin was found guilty of incest and lying to the court. He was sentenced to suffer castration but following Father Eadred’s plea, he was exiled and ordered to pay Bertha considerable compensation for the wrong he had done.

Bertha was finally freed of unwanted, lustful attentions. She was tarnished by Edwin’s carnal activity but few blamed her. Within six months she had wed a good man from a nearby vill.

In his prayers the day after the execution, Father Eadred was seized with the conviction that he was right to use the mind that the Lord God had given him. For if his thoughts were guided by prayer – not pride or malice – were sharp as a blade and never rested while there was work for them, then they would find the truth through the labyrinth of men’s guile and sin. To do otherwise would let evil prevail.

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