The frosty silence was broken by her mother’s equally chilling tone. “So, what do you have to say for yourself daughter?” Ealdgytha demanded eyeing her daughter reproachfully.
Freyda ignored her mother’s disdainful gaze and tried to catch her father’s eyes as it was for his approval she sought more than her mother’s. They darted here and there to avoid her; as if he would turn to stone if her gaze caught him. He was unrecognisable to her. Gone was the laughing eyes and the smile that was often only for her. She studied him keenly, as if the real Wulfhere would reappear if she searched hard enough. From a little girl, she would tease and cajole him, ensuring that he gave her his full attention. Sometimes he would pretend to swat her away bemoaning that she was ‘a little gadfly, tiresomely buzzing around’ and that he had ‘better things to do’; but she nigh on always got what she wanted from him. From a babe she had ensnared his heart, perhaps because she was his first born child, but now it seemed that he had hardened it against her.
“Well?” demanded her mother, after a moment of cold silence. “Have you nothing to say?”
Freyda continued to ignore her, remaining focussed on her father. Once upon a time, Ealdgytha had been a kind and loving mother, but not anymore. Something had changed within her over the years and lately, Freyda’s rebellious nature had resulted in mother and daughter being constantly at conflict with one another.
The young girl saw her father shift in his seat, blatantly uncomfortable under her scrutiny.
“Wulfhere, make her answer!” Ealdgytha said, turning to him for assistance.
Her husband glared at her as if he resented her prompting. Then he looked back at Freyda and his daughter knew by the burning in his eyes that he was quietly seething. Growing up witnessing many of her parents’ arguments had given Freyda enough insight into their relationship to know that her mother had a way of making her father feel inadequate.
“What were you thinking of Freyda, running off to tryst with this fellow in the woods without your mother’s knowledge?” Wulfhere demanded.
She could tell he was forcing himself to look at her. She steeled herself for the coming onslaught and said with as much courage as she could muster, “We could not help ourselves. We are in love.”
“Love?” Wulfhere rebuked. “Don’t be foolish, girl. What could you know of such things? You have been listening to the songs of too many scops.”
Freyda looked down at the floor. She knew it would be imprudent to argue. “I am sorry Father.... if I have disappointed you in any way,” she said somewhat more meekly.
“She should have a good whipping!” Ealdgytha broke in angrily, turning her head toward Wulfhere. “My father would have had me skinned alive had I dared to behave so disobediently!”
“I have always been a dutiful daughter,” Freyda objected. “Surely that has to count for something.”
“You know who this boy is?” Wulfhere asked. His voice had softened a little. He gave Ealdgytha a look that told her that he was in charge. He had never laid a finger on any of his children over the years but if he had to, it would be his decision not hers.
“She knows, husband. Of course she knows who he is,” Ealdgytha interjected impatiently.
Freyda smiled inwardly, pleased that her parents were still at odds with one another, if not in the bed-chamber then elsewhere in their lives. She knew that her mother would be silently willing Wulfhere into action and his lack of it so far would infuriate her. Freyda was strangely comforted by this and hoped she could use this fact to her advantage.
“I know he is the son of Helghi; that there is contention between you and his father. But it has nothing to do with Edgar or I.” She spoke assertively and with confidence.
“ It has everything to do with you and since you have described yourself as a ‘dutiful daughter’, I would not have expected you to go running into the woods to meet with a lad whom you know to be the son of your father’s sworn enemy; a man who caused the death of your own uncle!”
The harshness in Wulfhere’s voice sent a shiver down Freyda’s spine, causing her to flinch. She could see him clutching at the scrolled arms of his chair with such force that his knuckles blanched with the intensity of his grip. “Aye.... ’Tis true, daughter. My brother Leofric’s life was lost because of Helghi, the night my own stables were burned to the ground and my horses killed.”
Freyda felt the tears gather in her eyes but held on to them, refusing to let them go. She lowered her gaze and said in a low voice, “T’was not Edgar’s doing Father and it was never proved that it was Helghi who caused your stables to burn. Please papa, I want you to end the feud and allow me to marry him.”
She recoiled when she heard her mother gasp in horror. She kept her eyes lowered and did not look up, feeling their disgust penetrate through the air.
Wulfhere ignored her request. Instead he focused on another more important matter. “Does this man have carnal knowledge of you?” His voice was severe and dramatic.
Freyda felt a storm brewing. She quivered, her boldness greatly diminished. For the first time in her life she was afraid of her father.
Wulfhere lunged forward in his chair causing startled gasps from the women. “Answer the question! Or so help me God, I will skin and gut him and stick you in a nunnery quicker than you could spin thread!” The thegn’s eyes were ablaze with anger and his handsome features were blanched with rage.
Though she shook with fear, she remained steadfast in her resolve and determined that she would stand strong, defiant to the last. She lifted her face and narrowed her eyes at Wulfhere, more like a conniving cat than the playful kitten she was to him. Let him think what he likes!
The desire to hurt him as he was hurting her burned within her. She was like a cornered animal. She fought back the urge to smile, satisfied that she could see the pain etched on his face. Like the cat who had struck out with its claws, she had drawn blood. She knew that the thought of his daughter giving herself to a man he loathed, would be a wound deep enough to cause him terrible pain. And so what? Was that not retribution enough for the pain she was feeling now? She clenched her teeth, set her jaw firmly and continued to say nothing.
“Answer the question!” Wulfhere demanded again, frustrated at her stillness. “Am I to take it that by your silence you are guilty of having given yourself to this man?”
When no answer was forth-coming, Wulfhere suddenly kicked out at the heavy oaken table and caused it to fall from the dais and crash onto the floor in front of her. The remains of their lunchtime meal flew in all directions, wooden bowls and clay cups crashed to the floor.
“Answer your father Freyda!” demanded her mother, rising to her feet. She looked somewhat shaken herself at the ferocity of Wulfhere’s rage.
“No! He does not have carnal knowledge of me!” Freyda replied, as she sprang out of the way. She let out a gasp as one of the cups smashed by her foot and a piece cut her ankle. With a cry of fear Sigfrith ran to her protectively. She had been watching from the other side of the hall, poking her head out from behind a partition.
Freyda looked up at her father as he stood on the dais. The anger that he had tried to suppress had reached boiling point when he had kicked out. Freyda had seen him display such rage before but she had never thought to be the cause of it and it filled her with horror as to what would come next. Her resolve was beginning to crumble and her mouth and chin were quivering. Sigfrith’s arms were thrown defensively around her and Freyda was grateful for her presence. Good Sigfrith, stoical and stalwart, lent her courage to continue and she stared at him, forcing herself to hide her fear and remain defiant. His brow was furrowed sternly and his mouth set in an unsympathetic line. His hands were clenched into fists as he stood towering over her on the dais. She saw that every part of his being shook with anger and her heart beat anxiously.
“You will never see Edgar Helghison again. Do you understand?” Wulfhere stated grimly.
Freyda gave no reply. She refused to hang her head in shame, for she had done nothing wrong. She wanted to scream at them that she would see him whatever they made her do and that it would be futile for them to order her not to. But she had seen her father’s anger explode like never before and was not certain that she wanted to see the whiteness of his fury again so soon.
“Do you understand?” he repeated. There was an ominous threat in his voice. “I have never beaten you before, daughter, but I can assure you that I will not baulk at giving you the whipping you deserve, if you ever defy me again!”
Freyda looked toward her mother, who had resumed her sitting position. Her expression was approving and smug. She is loving every minute of it, she thought, narrowing her eyes at her.
“Your father has spoken Freyda,” Ealdgytha said and gave her daughter a look of disdain in return. “There are to be no more secret meetings with this man.”
Freyda retorted passively with her feline stare. She nodded and made an obeisance. With a toss of her head, she left the hall, her face burning with her own quiet rage and her mind already scheming.