King Offa's Way: A.D. 420-430
Whenever people asked Hengist why he was called after his nickname rather than his given first name, Hengist would respond in a number of ways, depending on the situation, his mood, or who was asking. Hengist meant "stallion" in the dialect of the Angle language that he spoke.
If a woman of high or even average station would ask, Hengist would sometimes blush. His famous charm would seem to desert him and he would mutter something about it being due to his stature, which was two hand's-breadths above normal. If a woman who was either a whore or of low status asked that question, Hengist would grin broadly and tell the whole truth.
If a man asked, Hengist would change the subject, unless Hengist was in his cups, drinking with his warriors, in which case he would start to boast a familiar tale. His warriors, who had heard the tale a several score time or two, would groan and continue drinking, while Hengist told his version of the truth, with many an embellishment, and Hengist's younger twin brother, Horsa, would sit back and grin. The truth was simple enough.
Shortly after Hengist's mother, Aelfwine, had given birth to infant sons, King Wihtgils entered the room to inspect his newborn children. He took along his best friend and warrior, Cerdwulf Cedricking, who would also do duty as godfather to the children, protecting their interests if something happened to him. Wihtgils asked the midwife, "Which one is the eldest?"
"The one on the right," the midwife said, pointing to the larger of the infants sucking lustily on Aelfwine's left breast.
"Best thank Freya you haven't whelped triplets, woman," Wihtgils observed.
Aelfwine was tired, and she was used to Wihtgils's direct speech. She said nothing. But she did frown.
"I forget my manners, Love of My Life," Wihtgils said. "I can imagine that you have had a hard time of it, but like a good filly you have come on through. Can I look at our sons?"
"Yes, my lord. As we have discussed, I have given your oldest son the name of Octa, in honor of your grandmother's father. Since we didn't plan on having this one," pointing to the slightly smaller child suckling on the right breast, "why don't we name him after your great-grandfather's best warrior, Ebissa?"
"Octa and Ebissa! They are somewhat alike, which is to the good. If they both survive, people cannot help but think of both of them together," Wihtgils said, thinking of the son who had been born two years ago and had died of disease earlier in the year. That child had been named Wihtlaeg, after Wihtgils's famous great-grandparent. In the best of Angle tradition, that child's name had been different, but still alliterative with his father's. Wihtgils, remembering with fondness the departed child, didn't wish to be reminded of his firstborn so soon. Also, even though he was less superstitious than most, he thought a name so close to the departed child was a bad omen.
Grabbing the oldest child under the arms, Wihtgils took him from his mother's breast and turned him around. The child howled when deprived of nourishment, but not nearly as loud as Cerdwulf, when he saw the front of the child.
"By Freya's big sacred tits, look at the man-thing on that little troll!" Cerdwulf said, laughing. "He's certainly been blessed by the gods!"
Wihtgils tore his attention from his son's blue eyes with a trace of gray in them and looked down. He began to grin as well.
The child's penis was larger than usual for a newborn. It was nearly as large as Wihtgils's little finger. Both men stared. In the background the midwife slyly grinned. "I will thank you not to call my son and your godson a troll, Cerdwulf Cedricking!" Aelfwine said. "He will probably grow out of it."
"If I was him, I'd hope not," a thoroughly unrepentant Cerdwulf said. "Little tro, er prince is hung like a stallion!"
"Hengist, that's a good nickname for the boy," Wihtgils said, joining in the levity. Hengist meant "stallion" in Wihtgils's tongue.
"Here, hold him, and I'll look at the other one." Wihtgils quickly gave his son to Cerdwulf. He turned and took the other infant from Aelfwine's breast. This son also squalled angrily, making for a noisy room.
Aelfwine was about to protest all the levity at her sons' expense, when she noticed that her bosom was now uncovered. She remedied the lack by pulling up her blanket.
Ebissa wasn't as well endowed as his brother. But other than being slightly smaller than his brother in all respects, he was a healthy infant. The two men looked at the infant's head after they had satisfied their curiosity regarding other matters. His eyes were colored the same, but he didn't have as much red in his blond hair.
Wihtgils shrugged, and said, "Looks like they are not identical twins. But this one seems healthy enough. What shall we nickname him?"
"Can't call him a mare, that's for sure! Why don't you call him "Horse"? Then they both will be known as Hengist and Horsa," Cerdwulf suggested.
Wihtgils thought for a minute. Parents often gave their children nicknames such as "wolf," "bear," or "boar." The horse, in addition to being the most valuable animal a man could own, was sacred to Father Woden. The best sacrifice a man could make, other than hanging a slave in honor of Woden, was a properly burnt horse offering. And Wihtgils's family claimed descent from Woden. Wihtgils's bloodline was one of the chief foundations of his rule. That and the support of his Angle cousins.
"A good nickname. But I don't wish the origins of these names being noised around. I don't care to have the common folk laughing. Therefore we will keep still, and I will tell the boys why they have these nicknames when they are older." Wihtgils's grin returned. "They will laugh when they know the reason. Woden knows that we sure did!"
Cerdwulf nodded, then he resumed grinning. "Aye, Lord."
Wihtgils turned to the midwife, who had prudently let her grin fade long ago. "A good midwife keeps many secrets. A word to the wise."
"Yes, Lord. It will be as you say," the midwife said.
"A lord's weregild is ten times that of a warrior's. You have done good work delivering me two sons. Take your appropriate wage from my steward when you leave. You have my thanks for a job well done."
"Thank-you, Lord," the midwife said.
Wihtgils turned to Aelfwine. "Speaking of a job well done, you have done the best, my dear. I will go and drink to your health, and to that of our sons." Wihtgils placed Horsa between his wife's breast and right arm. Then he bent down and kissed her. "I will return later, dear."
Taking that as his cue to begin to leave, Cerdwulf handed Hengist to his father. "I'll drink to your health, Lady Aelfwine," he said.
She gave him no answer.
Wihtgils placed Hengist on Aelfwine's left side. "I leave you to find your own drink, son. It's not mead, but perhaps it is still sweeter!"
After another look at what had made Octa become known as Hengist, the two men left, grinning. The women in the room closed ranks as they left, muttering about male silliness. After that day, Wihtgils never referred to his sons as anything except Hengist and Horsa.
The two infants in due course grew into boys. When they were three, they were given long, straight wooden sticks with leather tips to use as spears. Small wooden shields, leather helmets, and small suits of leather armor were provided to protect against larger bruises. The spear was the most common and first-learned weapon of a Jutish warrior. At the age of four, they were given wooden lathes so that they could develop swordsmanship. Since they were an overchief's sons, they needed to learn to use a sword, a more expensive weapon available only to nobility or very rich commoners. Wihtgils taught his sons the weaponry skills that they would need whenever he had the time available from his largely ceremonial duties. More often Cerdwulf taught them, along with his youngest son, Eaha, a child a few months younger than Hengist and Horsa. The three boys learned together, under adult supervision, the proper use of weapons.
The boys wandered around the vicinity of their father's capital town. Wihtgils was often kept busy, moving from town to town, overseeing the villages directly under his rule. Additionally, he often inspected realms belonging to various subchiefs accountable to him. That left little time for Hengist and Horsa to see their father other than in the wintertime, when primitive roads ceased to be practicable to travel and warships were used to raid Britannia or being constructed or repaired. Eaha Cerdwulfing was Hengist's and Horsa's constant companion, since Wihtgils often took Cerdwulf with him on his travels. The boys would run off into the woods, supervised only by a trusted thrall. In the afternoons, the boys would put on their weaponry and leather armor and undergo instruction of arms by some of the older warriors past their prime fighting age. Since they had survived to reach old age, they were supposed to be the best of warriors.
Before Hengist and Horsa left their fifth year, Aelfwine birthed three daughters. The middle one, called Rowena, died before she reached her first year due to a short illness that claimed a few other children in the village. The other two girls, Arndis and Katrin waxed strong and prospered. When they were older, around sixteen, they would be advantageously wed to chieftains who would support their father's or brother's interests.