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The Cockle Amongst the Wheat
“THE COCKLE AMONGST THE WHEAT”
A short tale of Anglo-Saxon England circa. 1002 CE
“For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt [in Oxford],in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ [St Frideswide’s], having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God's aid, it was renewed by me."
-King Æthelred II the “Unready”
The Death of the Dane
A kingdom dressed in black heaved with the night. Every push and shove the wind seduced, tickled through the kingdom with fierce determination. All about the borders of the hallowed land, the chanting of convents and monasteries echoed, creating a scared presence within the air. Far from the twinkling points of the starlit sky, the people of the sleeping kingdom trembled; the peaceful chants echo only a subtle whispering in the wind.
“The Danes!” the people in the kingdom murmured,
“The Danes, the Danes!” they cried desperately, clinging possessively to their children.
“The Danes! The cockle amongst the wheat,” the people’s king murmured in response, his opal eyes foggy with the greed of death.
“Shall they die? Shall our fathers end their violent whims?” the voices of the children requested, harmonizing with the dull and distant chants of the convents and monasteries.
“Yes,” the king murmured, softly and gently.
Among the people of the kingdom, the Danes did roam. Their abundant footsteps tread heavily upon the land’s tarnished ground. So loud did their footsteps grow, that their footsteps engrained themselves deep into earth, staining it further.
Sharp cries filled the night’s blackness. One by one, red hands flushed with hunger grasped onto weapons. The angry calls of men replied to a second series of sharp cries, evoking the tears of the kingdom’s fearful children. One, single, third cry silenced its predecessors, releasing a rush of blood-lust through the veins of the kingdom’s men. With weapons in grip and feet in tow they shouted,
“Tis a Dane! Tis a Dane! Tis a Dane!”
The children then wailed as they buried their heads in the bosoms of their mothers,
“Tis a Dane? Tis a Dane? Tis a Dane?”
Then their mothers pleaded,
“Kill the Dane! Kill the Dane! Kill the Dane!”
A thief, swamped in his victim’s clothes, dashed into the kingdom’s shadowed forest. His eyes watched the men flood to the bloody scene where his victims had cried. At the scene, a Dane was stationed with his hand wrapped around his crucifix, the gentle wisps of prayerful chants in the wind cursing at his being. At the sight of the men, their weapons at hand, and his brethren murdered beside his feet, his eyes grew pink with tears.
“It is a Dane! It is a Dane! It is a Dane!” the men sang in eager voices, their weapons uniting with the passionate gleam in their eyes.
The Dane’s wide palms rose into the air, his crucifix falling to his broad chest and thumping upon it as if in tune with his heart. High, his hand continued to rise in signifying his innocence. Words, his mouth did speak, but far his words did not reach. The men of the kingdom were upon him. The thief slunk further into the forest with his blood-stained hands and the religious chants continued to grace the inside of the kingdom.
“The Dane is dead! The Dane is dead! The Dane is dead!” voices small and deep cheered through the dawn’s garnet sky.
Red with a threat of rain was the mornings glow. Happy and wrinkled were the faces of the kingdom, wrinkled with a stronger hunger for vengeance. Dead was the Dane, his body thrown in a ditch with his murdered companions. Silent was the king as he listened to his kingdom’s holy chants and wholesome cries.
Night heaved with silent winds, the humble gusts of air sweeping over the green hills of eleventh century England, carrying foggy clouds over the starlight skies. Far from the stars, a humble abbey could be seen in the night’s blue shadow. Mournful chants of nightly vespers hummed from the abbey’s chapel, humming unspoken prayers. Consuming the nun’s minds’ and resting far within the abbey’s walls, Abbess Ethelburh heaved along with the night, the air in her lungs one with the winds outside her amber-tinted room.
At the Abbess’s side, a loyal novice sat with one trembling hand gripping the handle of a ceramic pitcher and the other, gently patting a damp towel to the Abbess’s greying forehead. The Abbess stirred sleeplessly, seeing her own once youthful and rosy face in that of her caring novice. She smiled, warm memories of her girlhood filling her mind, the thought of being on her deathbed far from her conscious.
Ethelburh’s smile sagged as her youthful memories slowly vanished and transformed into the reality that they had become. Her heart, worn and long past its youth, began to beat more slowly. She cringed, her bones hallowing and her sight dimming into a bleak cloud of enriched light. The amber look of her rooms shone across her vision, becoming dull and muddled. With a ginger nod of her head, the Abbess decided that she needed to relieve herself of her cherished secret. With a thin and sorely jointed hand, she patted the side of her straw mattress,
“Sit, Aude,” Ethelburh ordered the novice, “and I will tell you,” Ethelburh insisted softly, allowing the novice to grasp her clenched hand as she sat next at her side, “My last words Aude. Of why I came here. For, I must tell someone.”
“It was the day after St. Brice’s Day in the year of 1002, a dark hue of crimson crept across the, the morning sky, like, like a vein filled with the blood of, of, ” Ethelburh breathed, forgetting her train of thought as she envisioned the redness of that morning’s sky, “I wanted to, die, dear Aude, to, to die, because I had at last found love and it had been stolen.”
Time enveloped Ethelburh’s being as her memory was consumed with the events that had occurred before the fatal, crimson, morning that had redirected her life.
“Ethelburh, come,” the gruff voice of her father commanded, “We must not let the Abbess wait any longer.”
Ethelburh knotted her hands in her nut brown hair, curling them into clenched fists. She took a heavy breath, inhaling the sweet smell of the guesthouse’s summer roses. Her father cleared his voice, impatiently beginning to make his way towards her. Hearing his feet imprinting the gravelly ground, Ethelburh released her knotted hair from her fists and faced him.
“Come, we must leave,” the gruff voice insisted, clenching Ethelburh’s nimble arms.
With great tension, Ethelburh pulled her arm away from his grasp and followed his burly figure out of the garden. The clanking and clamoring of the guest house’s kitchen, laughter from newlyweds, and engrossed conversations of merchants filled Ethelburh’s hearing, consuming her with nostalgia for the company of her mother and sisters. Her father walked stiffly, dragging with him the memories of her home. Together, they mounted a horse and trotted through the town of Oxford, her arms forcefully pulled around her father’s waste.
The roads were dark, the clouds of a midsummer storm casting a grey shadow over their dirt surfaces. Hidden amongst shrubbery, occasional bodies and pillaged belongings rested. Far in the distance, the abbey of St. Frideswide’s loomed, casting a deeper shadow over the world that Ethelburh knew, over the forgotten bodies of robbed travelers around her, over her childhood memories, over everything that she once knew. The southern countryside of England, once so enticing and anticipated, was now distorted and tainted with of abandonment.
“Father,” Ethelburh exhaled with panic as the convent appeared before them.
“Ethelburh,” her father replied heavily, pulling the horse to a stop and assisting his daughter from the horse’s back.
Three nuns rose in unison upon their arrival, their habited bodies draped with coarse black fabrics. Their beady eyes narrowed, their lips smiling false smiles. From behind them, soft chanting enveloped the stone building, haunting Ethelburh’s senses.
“Welcome Sister,” the tallest of the nun’s greeted her eyes the darkest and beadiest, “I am Abbess Guencen. We are delighted that you have chosen us at St. Frideswide’s Church to be your place of worship and life.”
“Thank you,” Ethelburh said numbly and quietly, as her father took hold of her shoulder for a last time.
“May the Christian God be with you my daughter. I am sure that we will see each other again,” her father promised falsely, nodding his head with forced assurance.
The nuns smiled and crossed themselves, outstretching their arms as to embrace Ethelburh. A racket accompanied these gestures, causing them to end and be replaced with looks of annoyance and fear. Abbess Guencen turned white, her eyes focused on figures behind Ethelburh and her father. Swiftly, Ethelburh and her father cautiously fallen suit.
“Peace, we have only come to pray,” an accented voice announced, its owner looming over the panicky group.
A trio of men had appeared, their horses as large as they, as to suit them. Their broad shoulders and thick arms moved stiffly, their wide palms offering peace. The nuns, other than the Abbess, began to back away, the blondness of the men’s hair sending adrenaline down their spines. With quizzical gestures, the man who had spoken advanced, sending the hands of Ethelburh’s father to the hilt of his sword. The men’s horses began to whinny and kick the earth, creating a louder racket then that of their arrival.
“Leave this place,” the voice of Ethelburh’s father ordered, his sword and arm lashing through the air.
“You are no men of the Christian God,” the Abbess chimed in, pulling Ethelburh possessively behind her, as to protect her.
“We are Christians,” a voice, deeper than that of the first man’s, proclaimed defensively.
The nuns gasped. The second man of the three had stepped forward, showing that he was the biggest and most handsome of the three foreigners. He, out of the three men, was the cleanest shaven and his voice the most tainted with the passionate desperation to worship.
For one moment, the second man’s eyes sought those of Ethelburh’s, causing her father to move forward. Suddenly, the air seemed to humidify with intense heat. A strange and obsolete chill found its way down Ethelburh’s spine, causing her to flinch. The second man continued to stare, his eyes full with an unreadable emotion.
“We are newcomers in Oxford. We were directed this way. We only want to pray,” the man continued, his icy blues eyes cutting kindly into the nun’s and ignoring the closeness of Ethelburh’s fathers sword.
“You? Pray? To the Christian God?” Ethelburh’s father gaffed, “You and your kin go back to your frigid land. Go before your monstrous instincts tell you to slaughter us! I saw how many robbed corpses lay about these roads. I would not doubt that you were the ones responsible. Filth!”
The third stranger, the shortest of the three, gushed forward, his face red as red as his hair with rage. His hand gripped his sword, only to be stopped by the first man who had spoken. The second ran his hand through his tunic, revealing a crucifix strung along a rope.
“Leave,” the Abbess demanded assertively, the whites of her eyes gleaming with anxiety.
The men frowned, the third cursed in a foreign tongue under his breath. Together, they pulled themselves onto their horses and left. Ethelburh began to shake, feeling misplaced. She watched the men, trying to erase the second man’s wholesome and curious stare.
Without further word Ethelburh’s father left. He did not look back at Ethelburh with the slightest sense of attachment, only his horse made any sound of pity. The Abbess wrapped her arm around Ethelburh’s shoulders.
“It is a shame that you had to see that upon your arrival,” the Abbess sighed heavily, still shaken from the newcomers attempt to enter her abbey, “More and more Danes have been seeping through these parts. More and more violence has occurred. We must pray for them dear Ethelburh, pray for their barbaric souls.”
Not four miles away, the three strangers communed in their new, thatched home. Silently, they prayed and prepared for the nights rounds of drinking. When they drank with their kin, the alcohol enriched their story of the encounter with the nuns and distracted their minds from the hatred that surrounded them. The people of Oxford hid within their homes. The children cried with distress as the drunken laughs of the fearful Danes grew louder and louder, filling the city with unease. Collectively, men and women alike huddled together in case the Dane’s should sporadically attack.
“We will return we will show them that we are good Christians,” Audun murmured to himself, watching his friends drink in a shower of orange light from the nearby fireplace.
The girl who had been with nuns had entered his mind. He had noticed her upon their arrival and had thought her attractive. Something about her did not seem to have belonged with the nuns and though he had seen more attractive women, he had thought her beautiful. With thoughts of prayer and Ethelburh on his mind, Audun retired to bed early, determined to show the town of Oxford that the Danes wanted peace.
From her window, Ethelburh could see the sterile world in which she lived, from the thatched roofs of Oxford in the south, to the looming hills and woods rippling with the brown hues of autumn, to the north. Loneliness had penetrated her body long ago, the nostalgia of remembering her mother and sisters had dissipated into a steady depression. Silently, she listened to the morning chants of the nuns and stared into the changing world around her, watching for the daily visit of the Dane.
The Dane, the second of the group of Danes that had appeared upon her day of arrival, came every morning. He stood outside the abbey and looked at it as if he were praying to it. His massive chest rose with sacred breathes and his eyes would scan the heavens, as if looking for God Himself. Ethelburh watched admirably, her stomach tightening into a tight and foreign kind of knot.
The Dane came, as he always did, and preformed his ritual. To his right, she could see the young novices pointing and crying for help as they passed through the kitchen gardens, as they always did upon seeing him. As always, one would run towards the chapel to alert the Abbess and bring her to scorn the Dane. To make him leave. Ethelburh, influenced by the stiffening knot within her stomach, stood to her feet, and without further thought, dashed into the cold fall morning.
Audun breathed an unsteady breath, preparing himself for the arrival of the Abbess. He grimaced as the novices began to point and whisper. Stiffly, he crossed himself, and ended his prayer.
“Why do you come?” Ethelburh inquired, her figure appearing from the Abbey’s entrance.
Audun’s shoulders rose with surprise, his icy eyes widened with warmth.
“To make all of Oxford see that not all the Danes are pagans or go a-viking , on raids. We are changed people,” Audun informed her, watching her fur-bundled body approach him.
“I watch you come every day, my room is there,” Ethelburh informed him in response, pointing a finger at the slender window of her room.
Audun’s face turned a gentle shade of pink as he smiled. The stares of the novices and the dying hum of the chanting nuns became subdued. The knot in Ethelburh’s stomach had latched itself to Audun’s. They looked at each other, their expressions stilled in the crisp autumn air.
“Will you always continue to come?” Ethelburh asked, gently stepping closer towards him.
“Until everyone believes that not all the Danes are-” he began, but was stopped by the sudden knot in his stomach pulsing him forward, a breath away from Ethelburh’s body. He looked down at his boots, his hand unconsciously grabbing the crucifix about his neck. A strange sense of warmth slowly began to trickle through his being.
“Step away from her, you barbarian!” the Abbess shouted, racing to their sides.
So infatuated in their new and foreign feelings were they, that the silence of the world around them and the pale gazes of the novices had faded into nonexistence. Like two children caught in doing a naughty deed, Ethelburh and Audun cast their gazes to the palms of their hands. The Abbess’s beady eyes hurled themselves wildly into round, black, and swampy balls of disdain.
“Leave,” the Abbess commanded, her voice shrilling with disgust, “leave and never come back. I have had enough of you! So weary am I of you and your kind, that I have written an appeal to the King. He is to send guards and a new decree on St. Brice’s Day. You will no longer be allowed to come here. And you” the Abbess crooned, grabbing Ethelburh’s arm, “have put yourself in danger. You foolish girl! You are only provoking him. You are to be moved. This abbey is not meant for you. You shall be moved to a convent further south. Clearly, you do not know the danger that these men bring.”
The Abbess’s words were loud and screeched through the morning’s growing tenderness. They brought the chill of the air into a permanent existence. Audun, for the first time in his short life, lost his voice. His hand, still tightly wrapped around his crucifix, ripped it from his neck, and before the Abbess could steal away with Ethelburh, he pressed it into her hand. Their hands, their touch unseen, felt familiar, as if they had always been touching.
“You shall be moved before the King’s men come on St. Brice’s Day, maybe one will escort you. I have written to the Abbess of the new convent being built on the southern coast of Wessex,” the Abbess announced later that day.
Ethelburh numbly nodded her head, fingering her new crucifix about her neck. The Abbess pressed her hands together as if they had been cast into a lifelong prayer. They sat in silence.
“I did not provoke him,” Ethelburh murmured, breaking the silence, “I only wanted to talk to him. He is not dangerous. I don’t think half of them are as bad as we think.”
“Hersey!” the Abbess snapped, standing from her perch behind a stained desk, “If the King or his men had heard those words! You would be executed! You are not fit to be this close to the temptations of these men. Unless they are all removed, I think that you should never come back. You will never be welcomed here again. Not until all temptation has left you.”
Ethelburh did not respond, she only sank further into her chair. A tear, watered with hate and anger, dropped from her eye, landing upon the hand that clutched her crucifix. She left, without excusing herself or without making any further speech. Once alone in her room, there she stayed until she was forced to leave, watching for Audun to return again.
St. Brice’s Day came, as did the King’s men and decree, and with the decree, a massacre. All hatred towards the Danes was celebrated, as the men of Oxford chased them out of the city. Under the lead of a handsome, clean-shaven, strong, young man and his two companions, the Danes rushed for the abbey of St. Frideswide’s Church in the belief that the nuns would come to their Christian aide. The Danes swarmed into the church, prayers and mercy on their lips, only to be locked in its holy walls and set on fire.
The memory of the blood-red sky that filled the morning after the massacre, a sky that only she saw, occupied Ethelburh’s last thought as her final inhale released her last exhale. Aude cried with shock and the amber tint of the room gleamed into that of a hardy, earthy brown. Ethelburh was now at the hands of death, hands that she freely accepted. Aude rushed from the dying woman’s room, not seeing the withered hand release a worn and well-loved crucifix.