Kidnapped in 7th century England and sold as a slave to a powerful mayor in France, Bathilde needs to adapt to survive. When the mayor’s beloved wife passes away, he looks to Bathilde for comfort. Fleeing his attentions, she is forced to live on the streets until she catches the king’s eye and everything changes.
Now a queen, Bathilde must provide the king with heirs and continue the charitable and social work that has become her life, all the while fighting her detractors. By the end of her days, Bathilde had changed the face of medieval France forever.
How did a slave navigate the treacherous Merovingian courts and rise to rule an empire? And why have so few people heard of her?
East Anglia, England 640 CE
The sun had barely risen when Bathilde snuck out of her family’s home. Taking care not to wake her older siblings, she picked up her boots and carried them to the door, carefully unlatching it and pushing. The early morning air greeted her, and she breathed deeply, smiling. With a glance towards the back of the dwelling where her parents slept, she pushed the door closed again. She decided to carry her boots and could hear her mother’s voice in her head as she ran along a path, worn down by deer and rabbits, into the nearby forest.
“Bathilde, what will people think? Running around like a wild creature!” At this point Bathilde would mimic her mother, speaking the words she’d heard so often along with her parent. “It’s no way for a cousin of the king to act.” Her mother would stare at her with mock anger. After a moment, however, Bathilde would relent and do her mother’s bidding.
Gliding a hand along the tops of the wildflowers, Bathilde thought of Wulfgar and her stomach leapt. What if he didn’t make it? He promised her he’d be there. She was approaching the woods and started searching for a sign of him, knowing she was too far away from the copse to see him. Hurrying past the tree line she followed the path through the ancient forest until the small clearing was just ahead. Through a gap in the trees, she saw Wulfgar. The first rays of morning shone through the branches, illuminating his uncombed blonde hair. Her stomach jumped again, this time in anticipation.
“You’re here.” Wulfgar took a step toward her as she entered the natural enclosure then stopped, looking down.
“I said I would be.” Bathilde found she was suddenly nervous, feeling as unsure as Wulfgar seemed to be.
Wulfgar cleared his throat and looked back up. “Sit with me? I’ve brought a blanket and some bread and cheese from last night.” He pointed at a bundle beside him. “To eat. To break our fast.”
Bathilde smiled at his thoughtfulness. “We don’t have much time. My mother will be up soon.”
“I know. So will my father. We’re working the great field today.” Wulfgar, like his father, was a farmer, spending long days outside. He and Bathilde were both fourteen and while Bathilde had still not developed fully, Wulfgar was already showing signs of the stocky muscles and strength physical labour forced on every farmer.
They ate in silence, comfortable just being with each other. Shy glances gave way to direct smiles and soon they were gossiping and laughing about people and events in the village. Bathilde had just finished telling a story about an old woman who refused to pay for an apron Bathilde had made for her when Wulfgar grew serious.
“I have something for you.” He reached into the pouch at his belt and withdrew a ring. “I made this. For you.” He stuck out his arm and lowered his head, his eyes still glued to Bathilde.
Reaching over, she gently took the ring from his outstretched palm. It was made from thin silver wire, two wires making up the body of the ring that twisted into a complicated knot on the top. The silver shone in the sun’s rays and cast dappled reflections on the leaves around them.
“I asked my father to get the wire when he went to town. I wanted to give you something.”
Bathilde’s parents were merchants, and her upbringing had been privileged compared to a farmer’s son; she knew what the silver must have cost him and turned her gaze from the gift to the giver. “I love it. Thank you.”
Wulfgar inched forward and, taking the ring from her palm, turned over her hand and slipped it onto her finger. Turning her hand again, he ran his index finger in a swirling pattern on her palm before wandering to the soft sensitive area on her wrist. Bathilde leaned forward, slowly closing her eyes in expectation. But instead of Wulfgar’s lips, she found only air.
“Did you hear that?”
Bathilde opened her eyes; Wulfgar had leaned back onto his haunches, his body alert. She listened, hearing only the birds and other creatures of the forest. “I don’t hear …”
She was cut off by a scream in the distance. Then shouting. The panic and fear were clear. “It’s an attack! We have to go!” Wulfgar was up and running, leaving behind his bag, reaching for Bathilde. She grabbed his hand and he hauled her up as he pushed through the brush.
“Who’s attacking?” Bathilde caught up to him.
“I don’t know! Just hurry!” Together they followed the same path out of the forest and soon reached the clearing between the woods and the village. Smoke billowed in the sky before them and the awful cries of people in terror surrounded them.
They’d only hesitated for a moment when Wulfgar started running toward the village.
“No! Wait!” Bathilde shouted after him.
He slowed and threw his words over his shoulder. “Hilde, go to your parents! I must find my father!” Turning back, he doubled his efforts and was soon nearing the main village road.
Bathilde watched him leave then began to run to her home. The soil had dried in the brief time she’d been with Wulfgar and her feet hit the ground hard. Wincing as she stepped on something sharp, she realised she’d forgotten her boots in the copse. She stopped to check her foot and removed a small stone that had embedded itself into the ball of her heel, watching a bead of blood fill the spot left vacant by the pebble. Bathilde gave her foot a quick rub before continuing toward her family’s house on the outskirts of the town. She was on the road when she heard the pounding of hooves coming closer and hid behind an ancient oak as men rode past. Their cloaks flew behind them and Bathilde saw the colours. She knew who was attacking the village: the men of Mercia.
Sneaking in and out of the tall weeds that grew by the side of the road, Bathilde made her way to her family’s home. The smoke from the burning buildings had started to blow across the fields and her eyes teared as she struggled to reach her family. The screams from behind her made her shudder, and more than once she looked back to the place she’d last seen Wulfgar. Now there was only a wall of grey smoke to see. Then a shriek from ahead of her, from the direction of home, focussed her attention and she began to run, ignoring the rough earth that ate at her bare feet.
Bathilde used the sleeve of her chemise to wipe away the tears streaming down her face, but her vision of her family’s courtyard was still blurred as she rushed in. All was chaos. One of her mother’s horses pushed past her, its eyes rolling in a wild panic, knocking her down onto a pile of dirty hay. She got up, avoiding a loose pig with its intestines hanging from a large cut in its stomach, its panicked squealing filling her ears, and continued into the house.
The only reply was a scream from the back of the house, where her parent’s private room had been built. Bathilde rushed through the hall, going as fast as her anguished lungs would permit. The smoke was thick here. Through the haze, she saw the destruction of her family’s belongings. Tapestries had been torn from the walls and slashed through with swords, and one had been left crumpled in a corner with excrement smeared on the edges. She didn’t want to guess if it was human. The shields that had adorned the walls for generations had also been torn down and destroyed; the glorious stories they’d told were now mere kindling in the flames of her history.
Barely able to breathe, Bathilde’s anger grew, replacing her fear as she carried on, holding her arm up to her mouth and nose in a futile attempt to keep out the smoke. “Mother! Where are you?!”
She heard noise in the back of the house, where her mother kept an herb garden, filled with plants both for seasoning and for healing. Rushing into the light from the smoky gloom of the manor, her eyes took a moment to adjust. When she finally saw what was before her, she screamed.
Her mother and father were on their knees in the dirt. Her father’s face was swollen and bloody, and he held his arm tightly clasped to his body. A large bruise was already forming on her mother’s cheek and tears flowed from her eyes. Her siblings were nowhere to be seen.
“Another one? Grab her!” The Mercian warrior, the leader by the look of his exquisitely stitched tunic and heavy gold pendant and clasps, addressed the command to the air.
Bathilde suddenly felt large arms around her and struggled, thrashing her forearms, and kicking her legs. But the arms only tightened around her until she felt faint. She stopped resisting.
“Well, I’m glad to see there is someone sensible in this household.” The Mercian addressed her father. “Your sons were foolish and paid the price for it.”
An anguished cry emerged from the kneeling woman, and Bathilde knew both of her brothers were dead. The arms that held her in place had relaxed enough to allow her to breathe, however as soon as she tensed to struggle again, the arms re-tightened. But she could keep her words inside no longer.
“You dare to come here, attack us like this! Killing my brothers? Destroying our lives?” Bathilde felt the hysteria rising. She saw the pleading look in her mother’s eyes and ignored it. “My brothers are dead. You did this? Do you even know what you’ve done? Who we are?”
The Mercian laughed, cutting through Bathilde’s shock like a knife. “I know who you are.” He nodded his head at the man holding Bathilde and she once again felt the arms start to tighten. She kept her face hard, refusing to let this man see her gasp.
“Please.” Her mother’s voice was barely above a whisper; still, it caught the Mercian’s attention. “Please. Let her live.”
The large man waved a beefy hand and the air suddenly rushed into Bathilde, making her dizzy. The Mercian approached her, taking a step to the left and right, looking her up and down. Then, as if he’d come to a decision, he walked back to where her parents still knelt in the dirt.
“Fine. She’s a bit thin but I’m sure we’ll find a use for her.” The man leered at her, winking.
Those were the last words Bathilde heard her father utter. In one stroke, the Mercian raised his axe and brought it down. She watched as her father’s body fell forward, his head rolling to a stop a few feet away. As she felt darkness surround her, she watched through a tunnel of light as her mother suffered the same fate as her father. Then there was nothing.
“Hilde, wake up.”
Bathilde smiled as she gained consciousness, hearing Wulfgar’s voice.
Suddenly she sat straight up, the memory of what had happened rushing back to her like a deluge. Looking around the unlit space, she saw she was in the town’s main hall with many others, and that Wulfgar’s voice had been just a dream. Frantic, she rose, but a heavy iron manacle had been attached to her right leg. A chain from the manacle was affixed to a heavy post that had been rammed into the floor. While Bathilde could stand, she could only take a single step in any direction before the chain restricted her movement. She searched the hall from where she was, desperate to find Wulfgar. There was no sign of him.
Feeling dizzy and nauseated, Bathilde collapsed back onto the floor. She looked up and saw faint light coming through the gaps in the wooden ceiling, and guessed it was the same day. A soft moan a few feet away got her attention. “Hello?”
“Shhh, they’ll hear you.” An unknown voice answered back, hoarse and dulled by the pain of their shared horror.
“I don’t understand. What’s happening?” Bathilde’s voice began to rise, and she quickly checked herself.
“The king of the Mercians made another attempt to conquer our king. I do not know if he succeeded or not, or if East Anglia has fallen.” The voice sputtered the words.
“So, we are here as ransom?” Bathilde’s question was met with a hoarse laugh. “Why do you laugh at me?”
“Because my time with you is nearly over. I will not be on your voyage. But I wish you well, child.”
“Wait, who are you?”
Bathilde’s question was met with a wet gasping, then silence.
They stayed in the village hall that night. When dawn broke, they were given water and scorched bread and were loaded onto caged wagons. Bathilde watched as they drove away from the smouldering remains of the only home she’d ever known. Her throat was too constricted to swallow the coarse bread, so she gave her share to a boy a year or two younger than herself who was sitting nearby, his eyes wide and unblinking, his small arms wrapped tightly around his rocking body. She moved closer to him and put her arm around his shoulders, feeling him stiffen beneath her touch. Together they sat in silence, watching as their previous life grew smaller and smaller until it had faded into the distance. For miles they sat like that, neither speaking. Bathilde’s exhaustion finally got the better of her and she fell asleep, only wakened by the wagon as it shuddered to a stop.
Bathilde was surprised to find herself in a wagon. A moment later the memory of what had happened nearly made her cry out. Her arm, stiff and sore, was still around the small boy’s shoulders. He’d not relaxed the entire time she was awake and now his body felt even harder than before. Gently removing her arm, she looked at the boy’s face and realised he had died. She gagged with revulsion and, barely holding back her horror, inched away from the body as far as the space permitted.
“Off. All of you. Now!” A tall thin man wearing Mercian colours and who smelled of pigs shouted at the wagons. When no one moved, he waved his hand axe in the air and brought it down hard into the dirt. “I said now!”
All at once, the prisoners moved, scrambling to get off the wagon and trying to avoid the bodies of those unfortunate souls who hadn’t made it through the journey. Still barefoot, Bathilde clenched her stomach and removed the boy’s boots, gagging as she did so. She slid them onto her own feet as she climbed from the wagon, thankful despite the tight fit.
“In there.” He pointed to a long wooden building like the hall in Bathilde’s village. As she followed the others, she had a quick chance to look around. They’d arrived at a port, which one she couldn’t tell. She’d been to ports before, travelling with her father and brother when they went on business, but did not recognise this one. It was smaller than she was used to, with fewer ships and fewer buildings along the water than the larger trading ports she’d visited. Her memory hit her hard and she staggered under the force, barely managing to hold herself up. She’d seen what these men were capable of and had no desire to draw any attention.
That was all Bathilde was able to see before she was herded into the building with the others, their manacles all chained to posts that had seen much use. Fortunately, her post was close enough to a wall for Bathilde to just reach a gap created by a piece of rotted wood. Taking a deep breath, she smelled the sea air, fresh with a coolness not felt inland. Sea birds squawked overhead, circling, waiting for fishermen to return from their day’s labours. The sound of voices made her back away from the gap, then cautiously peer outside again.
Two men stood there, their voices rising as they argued in a language Bathilde didn’t understand. She recognised one as the man who had herded them from the wagons, his smell announcing him. He shouted, his arms raised in the air, his face red. His words were a mix of English and something else so Bathilde understood little of what he said. But there was one word she did hear clearly: slave. The other man, heavy and dressed in foreign clothing, shouted back and pointed to something in the distance. Bathilde waited to see what the first man would do. Finally, he dropped his arms and snarled something, his head nodding.
The foreigner reached under his tunic and withdrew a leather pouch. Handing it over, he bowed and hurried away, leaving the first man standing alone. Bathilde could hear the clink of the gold and silver as he bounced the pouch up and down in his palm, smiling as he walked away.
When night fell, they were given more bread, this time un-burnt, and weak wine, along with bits of hard cheese. Bathilde ate everything she’d been given, ravenous despite her situation. The hall was filled with the sounds of moaning and gentle weeping, bringing tears to her own eyes. As she ate, she surveyed the room by the light of the late sun shining through the broken roof slats. She looked for his blonde hair among the heads of all the others, turning the ring he’d given her around and around on her finger unconsciously, but whenever she thought she saw him she was always cruelly tricked, and it was another. He wasn’t here. Finally letting the tears fall freely, she leaned against the wall, wrapping her arms around herself for comfort, and awaited her fate.
Copyright Kelly Evans 2021