Welcome to Question Time, coming to you ‘live’ from 10th century Mercia. Here with me tonight are, from To Be A Queen, Aethelflaed and Ethelred, and from Alvar the Kingmaker, we have Alvar, Káta, and Alfreda. Our first question comes from our viewer, Stephanie, and she would like to know which of the senses you consider most vital.
Alvar and Káta, if I could turn to you first?
“Thank you, Annie. Lord Alvar will allow me to begin, but I wish to speak about him. His sense of smell is acute. Once, before he met me, he wandered off in search of a ‘lady’ of the court, trying to locate her by catching a waft of her scent. When he gets angry, he talks in terms of smell, and has been known to declare that foul play ‘Stinks worse than a Welshman’s fart.’ Please excuse my language.”
“Yes, I do notice smells. Káta is too self-effacing to tell you, but when I lay wounded and barely alive, the first thing I perceived when I regained consciousness was the delicate fragrance of her perfume and I knew I was in her care, and would recover. She has always been envious of Queen Alfreda, but she will discover, poignantly, that Alfreda wears that same perfume, and it reminds me always of Káta.”
Lord Alvar, can you tell us about Káta now?
“She will tell you that I am never comfortable talking about the women in my life, and especially about her. I get tongue-tied and often make a fool of myself, but I shall try. I love watching her: her fingers are nimble and throughout our story I have watched her bandaging various people, myself included, and working at her spinning. When she is worried, she will reach out and touch her loved ones, for reassurance or to check that their wounds are healing. In relaxed moments, she will run her hands through a sack of dried peas, or, out walking, she will tug at the plants along the hedgerow, often playing with a stalk of grass that has come away in her hands. I watched her once, threading a chain of flowers, and when she caught me looking at her, I don’t know which of us was more embarrassed. And, after I’d tried and failed to describe Queen Alfreda to her, I tickled her face with a blade of grass. That very nearly led to something we both would have regretted at the time.”
Ah yes, now we should speak to Queen Alfreda?
“Well, it’s all about the eyes, isn’t it? It’s about what people see, or don’t see. Beauty and bruises. I spent my early life making sure that folk could not see the marks upon me. I hid away, I held my hands to my chest when I walked, I sat in dark corners. Then a powerful man, the king, no less, declared me beautiful and persuaded me to believe him. There was a moment, when I made a decision to wear my best and most expensive dress, of green silk. That decision changed my life, for people saw me and knew me to be a noblewoman. It was the day I shed one life and began another. Nowadays, I make sure that whenever men look upon me, they see me at my best. I will smooth my skirts, I sit up straight, and I meet their gaze. I have found, though, that it pleases them if I then look away and slightly downwards. Except that the lord Alvar…”
Thank you, and please don’t upset yourself. Shall we turn now to our guests from To Be A Queen? Lord Ethelred?
“I was a warrior and I relied upon all my senses. I would have answered Stephanie’s question by saying that they are all equal. But there came a time in my life when my eyes and legs failed me. I had to rely for a while on my hearing, and at first it played tricks on me. I lay in bed, and listened, but sometimes in the swirling world between sleep and wakefulness I couldn’t distinguish between the flocks of geese and the noise of chatter from the great hall. Gradually I learned to listen more closely to what I was hearing, and was able to detect the subtle change of tone in people’s voices, that betrayed their true feelings. Did you know that, my love?”
“Yes, I did. And I know the conversation you have in mind. But let’s not dwell on that.”
“No, my love, let us tell them instead about you, and how you honed your missile-launching skills. I watched you, remember, playing with the children and trying to hook horseshoes onto a stick in the ground? It was just after you had thrown a shoe at the crow to scare it away from the newly-planted herb bed. I recall the night you silenced a row between Mercians and their visitors from Wessex by hurling plates and cups at them from the head table. And I daresay those Vikings outside the walls of Chester were a bit surprised to see what you ordered to be pelted over the walls at them.”
“Well, they made me cross. And we had to do something, folk were starving…”
Ah yes, Lady Aethelflaed. We’ve talked tonight about Smell, Touch, Sight, Hearing, and Hand-Eye Co-ordination. What of Taste?
“Annie, dear author, do we really need to remind you? Even when we are not enduring famine, which happens frequently, our food is, really, quite appalling. My wedding feast was sumptuous, thanks to my Lord Ethelred’s generosity, but when I tell you that we had the luxury of expensive herring, you might remember that everything is relative. Mostly, even we rich folk eat what you would call basic foods: meat (boiled or roasted), fish, cheese, fruit, nuts, pulses, vegetables. Oh, and most of us will wear our teeth down quickly because our bread is very gritty. I believe that Káta ordered her flour to be ground more thoroughly when her lord was home, but says she doesn’t need it so finely ground when he is away.”
Ah, but when you say ‘her lord’ you don’t mean Alvar, do you? Perhaps we’d better move on. Thank you to all my guests tonight. Next week there will be a different panel, and no doubt a completely different question from our viewer, Stephanie. Thank you all for watching, and Goodnight.
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now, and is the story of one man’s battle to keep the monarchy strong and the country at peace, when successive kings die young. Attempting to stay loyal to all those who depend on him, he must make some very personal sacrifices. A third novel, also set in Mercia, is due to be released in 2017. Annie is currently working on the novel which was a prize-winning entry in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition and which she was encouraged by judge Fay Weldon to complete.
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