The midsummer Anglican Confederation tribal meeting held the year Hengist was five was a pivotal event. King Offa the Gentle, King of the Angles, undisputed Overlord of the Peninsula and the Isles, cousin and source of support to Wihtgils, was going to step down after thirty-five years of sole rule. King Offa had ruled his people for close to forty years, the last five of which he was the senior ruler along with his son Angeltheow. His beloved wife, Queen Cynethryth, had died of pneumonia the previous winter. Now tired, life-weary King Offa, the aged legend, was going to hand over power to his experienced, cool-headed son, King Angeltheow. All the chieftains, clansmen, and people, both gently born or common, concerned with the succession were invited, or, in some cases, commanded to attend the festivities and the ceremony. Even the Saxon king was invited.
Wihtgils took along his whole family and one hundred of his best warriors. He had to swear fealty to cousin Angeltheow in any case. Since this event was protected by the King's Peace, it would be perfectly safe to bring his family along this year. The ever curious Hengist had bothered him no end about the meaning of the festivities, and Horsa had seconded his brother. If he took along his infant daughters, perhaps he could work on arranging a good marriage in the future. Besides, even though King Offa hadn't died yet or given up power, most of the Northland talked about his rule being some kind of golden age. This event, the ending of one age and the beginning of another, was certainly worthy of widespread attendance.
As usual, the activities were to be held at King Offa's summer meeting place, Fifelder. Fifelder was an island in the middle of the Eider River, with meadow space to spare on both banks. After giving the matter a good deal of thought, Wihtgils decided to bring his family in two longships down the west coast of Jutland, then row the boats up the Eider as far as practical. If the water was high enough, they would not have to portage or leave the boats. As it was, they wouldn't have over a day's walk to go, since Fifelder wasn't over 25 miles from the sea on either side. Cerdwulf would leave four days ahead of Wihtgils in the boats. He would command fifty warriors and the drovers of a herd of cattle, part of the tribute to King Angeltheow.
Wihtgils had a pleasant and safe journey down the west end of the peninsula to the mouth of the Eider river. The Eider was slightly up that year, but they had to beach the longships near a small hamlet situated where the second stream, the Sorge, joined the Eider. A small group of two knights and five men-at-arms came out of one of the buildings and watched while the longships were dragged onto the riverbank closest to the hamlet. The older knight, a sturdy man wearing old Roman armor and armed with two spears about fifteen years Wihtgils senior, stepped forward and introduced himself. His name was Ailbric.
"Most of King Offa's guests are going through Hedeby, then walking overland 20 miles to Fifelder," said Ailbric. "Except for some Saxon nobles representing the Saxon king, who wouldn't or couldn't come." Hedeby was the biggest town in Angelyn, home to many a skilled smith and scene of the biggest slave market in the Northland. Most visitors from the Geats, Danes, or Swedes would sail south, down the east coast of Jutland to Angelyn and put their boats in at Hedeby. Then they would walk or ride across the bogland to Fifelder.
"It's no wonder that the Saxon king won't come. The Saxons were well thrashed the last time they tried to take something that wasn't theirs. King Offa certainly taught them a lesson they won't forget. Doubtless, they will have their faces rubbed in their mess when the Lay of King Offa is sung during the ceremonies," Wihtgils said.
"I don't know about that." Ailbric rubbed his chin. "The Saxon ambassador, Chief Gida, is certainly a slick character. I've never seen him discomfited by anything.
"In any case, we have been waiting for any Saxon who wishes to come. I will send someone off cross country to inform them that King Wihtgils and family await transport. Are you going to leave some men behind to guard your boats? We will leave a small group here for any ships, but guarding the contents are up to you."
Wihtgils thought for a moment, then ordered three men to take the guard duty for the first day. Ailbric sent a man-at-arms towards Fifelder with the message that King Wihtgils had arrived and that he requested horses for his family to ride into Fifelder as befitted their station.
After an hour or so, the man came back, accompanied by Cerdwulf and a dozen horses. Cerdwulf got off of his horse and informed Wihtgils that the procession southward with the cattle had gone well. The cattle were grazing on one of the meadows around Fifelder. The soldiers that had marched south were bathing themselves upstream about a mile away from Fifelder. Would Wihtgils care to join them in order to make an entrance?
Wihtgils looked up at the sky. It was late afternoon. The ceremonies were tomorrow, but it wouldn't hurt anything to make an entrance. Taking everything of value out of the boats, Wihtgils decided to leave the ships unguarded except for the old knight and his already-posted ship's watch. Wihtgils met up with his other fifty. A column was formed and they marched across the bridge to the collection of timber and stone buildings set on Fifelder.
King Offa was sitting on a throne atop a wooden platform. An open air tent provided shade for the aged king. Wihtgils halted his column. The trained men formed a square behind him. Wihtgils' family and servants dismounted, then stood behind the square, off to the side. Wihtgils waited to be announced by Offa's herald. When his name was called, Wihtgils moved forward and knelt before King Offa.
King Offa, known by his people as Offa the Gentle, was also known as King Offa the Silent by minstrels throughout the Northland. He was now approaching his sixty-third year. His blond hair had turned silver and his massive arms, which in his prime had been as big around as a plowman's legs, had seemed to shrink. While his height was six inches above the stature of most men, since Offa sat slumped on his throne most men wouldn't have thought that he was particularly tall if he hadn't looked so gaunt. He shifted often upon his throne even though he had a pillow cushioning his age-withered flanks. He seemed like many another old man, muscular in his prime, who had gone to fat in later middle age, and now, at the end of his life, was wasting away. King Offa also had an air of weariness about him as though he was tired of shouldering his people's burdens.
But King Offa's physical condition was noticed only after the visitor had a chance to step back into the crowd and collect himself from actually meeting the man. Most people were impressed by King Offa's air of wisdom, decency, patience. King Offa would listen to whatever the visitor had to say, would mull it over a little while after he had asked pertinent questions, then render his verdict or decision with the gravity of a saint. Also, while he was reckoned as being no less valorous than the late King Alewih the Bold, ruler of the Danes, Offa was known as the best of kings. It was commonly agreed that justice was well served at King Offa's court.
The herald announced Wihtgil's presence. Wihtgils knelt before King Offa, then was bade to rise and embrace the royal presence.
"I am glad that you could make the long trip down here, Cousin," King Offa said, even though Wihtgils Witting was the son of his first cousin. "You honor me with the presence of yourself and your family, not all of whom I have met."
"It is my pleasure to perform my duty to you, my Lord. You have met my wife, Aelfwine," Wihtgils said, pointing to his wife, who had dismounted from her pony and was standing to the side of Wihtgil's troop. She bowed towards the raised throne. "But you haven't met my sons Hengist and Horsa, or daughters Arndis or Katrin."
The girls were in the care of servants, well to the back of the crowds flanking Wihtgil's troops. The small boys were to the side of their mother. When they noted attention being brought to them, Hengist stood his ground, while Horsa acted as if he wanted to duck behind his mother's skirt, then changed his mind. King Offa smiled, then beckoned the boys forward to his throne. Wihtgils nodded in confirmation. The boys, obedient, walked forward up the steps on the raised dais where the throne set and their father waited.
"Hengist and Horsa! What unusual names," King Offa remarked to Wihtgils. "Nicknames. Their real names are Octa and Ebissa. But I hope that they will become men of stature and strength, men well able to lead their people when their time comes, King Offa," Wihtgils smoothly lied as his sons climbed the steps. "Boys, mind your manners. Kneel, then kiss King Offa's hand."
The boys did as they were told. King Offa gave out his hand to be kissed, after which he plopped down on his throne.
"Not as young as I used to be, Cousin Wihtgils. After tomorrow, when I will have more time to be a family man, send these young men to me so that I may get to know them better. With your permission, of course."
"Yes, Lord King," Wihtgils said.
"It looks like it will be a good night tonight. I think that we will hold the festivities outdoors. Bring up yourself, these boys, and your ten best soldiers near to my throne, so that you will be able to drink of the best beer, eat the best food, and clearly hear my minstrel sing the old songs tonight."
"It shall be my pleasure, King Offa," Wihtgils said.
"I shall see you tonight. Until then, Cousin Wihtgils," King Offa said.
Wihtgils scooted his sons off the platform. Hengist and Horsa went off to their mother. Wihtgils dismissed his troops. They broke ranks and wandered to the sidelines. Cerdwulf had already picked the other nine who would dine with their chief tonight. The remaining ninety went off to drink from the great barrels of beer or to eat some roast beef from one of the cooking pits. Wihtgils had told them to be on their best behavior before they had left for Fifelder. King Offa's attention was claimed by some Geatish chieftain who had journeyed down for the festivities.
The Saxon ambassador walked up to Wihtgils. Gida was a chieftain of the Bardengawi, a small tribal unit in the Saxon confederacy located to the south. Gida was a slightly built, wiry man with a reputation for slipperiness of tongue. A perfect man to be an ambassador to the Anglican Confederation.
"Hello, King Wihtgils. My name is Gida and I'm the Saxon ambassador. I have heard of you for a number of years. Today I get to meet you."
Wihtgils turned to face the newcomer. "And I have heard of you. I am somewhat surprised that you are here today instead of staying in Hedeby."
"No reason for surprise. Us Saxons are cousins to the Angles, to you Jutes as well. We have had a falling out the last few years, but there is no reason for not mending things now," Gida said.
"Especially now that King Offa is stepping down tomorrow. Now that the old order is changing, perhaps you will have some success. But I would not like to be in your place, hearing about Saxon treachery tomorrow even though you are perfectly safe as a guest of King Offa."
"Sometimes the servant of the king must have his nose rubbed in his master's sins," Gida said. "But as I said before, we do wish to be trusted by our kinsfolk again. Who knows, perhaps the Huns shall ride north. It would be good to have our Angle and Jutish brethren on our side."
"Are you the only one who will have to eat shit tomorrow? Or will some of your Saxon lords share in the feast?" Wihtgils asked. He lifted an eyebrow and smiled a small, somewhat cynical grin.
"Huh," Gida said with an small grunt that doubled as a chuckle. "I have told my peers that it would be good if some of them came and heard a recital of your grievances against us. Hopefully they will be here by morning and in time to hear your Lay of King Offa. I will tell them to listen with a straight face."
"But certainly not the Myringas?" Wihtgils asked. "That would be too much!"
"No, assuredly not them," Gida said, with a faint smile. "There are limits to even King Offa's patience."
Wihtgils rubbed his chin. "Perhaps it is time for our tribes to be on friendlier terms. But you know as well as I do how much we cherish our conflicts. King Offa has been large-hearted enough to want a reduction in tensions. He will probably tell King Angeltheow that conflicts between our tribes should come to an end with the retirement of the aggrieved parties. I will guardedly wish you luck, Saxon," Wihtgils said.
"I thank you for your good will and your time, King Wihtgils. I shall see you around here. Good day," Gida said. Then he left.
Wihtgils looked at Cerdwulf, who had listened to the conversation. "That old knight that I talked to yesterday, Ailbric, was right. Gida is a smooth character. If he means what he says, perhaps he should have good luck. It might not be a bad thing to end this difference between kinfolk," Wihtgils said.
"That sort makes his own luck. He is not a gambling man. Remember what your father said? Your enemies won't disappoint you nearly as much as your friends and relatives will," said Cerdwulf.
"Yes, I remember. Good advice for any time. But times change, and we must change with them. Come along. Let's get something to drink and eat." Wihtgils took his friend and advisor to the closest barrel of beer.
After the sun had gone down, Wihtgils and his party sat on benches opposite the throne tent along with other notables. King Offa sat on his throne facing the fire. King Angeltheow sat at Offa's right hand on a slightly smaller throne so that his head was a good foot below that of his father's. A small bonfire, illustrating the night's entertainment, an old bard known for his command of the old traditions, was burning between the thrones and the benches where the nobles sat. The commoners who wished to listen sat on the ground behind their betters. After some deliberation, it was decided to close down the cooking pits and the beer vats in the interests of hearing what the bard had to say. This sort of event wouldn't happen very often. To the Angles, Jutes, and fellow Northmen, a good poet singing the great traditions was more intoxicating than the best mead.
Eldred, the bard, had seen over seventy winters and was believed to be the second oldest of King Offa's subjects, the honor of being the oldest currently being held by a merchant in Hedeby who was ailing. Eldred had outlived two wives and his male children, who had died of childbirth, disease, or warfare respectively. Currently he was cared for by a daughter whenever he didn't have a commission to teach aspiring bards or to perform ceremonies. He only had one eye, the other one having been lost during a bloodfeud that he had settled by killing the last male adult of the opposing family. With his long white hair, white beard, and eye patch he looked uncommonly like the depiction of Woden before he had ascended to Valhalla. The old man was accustomed the respect that his mature years, wisdom, and sometimes truculent disposition guaranteed him. He was as independent as a bull auroch; and like those wild cattle, he wouldn't be herded to any opinion other than his own. This quality made him feared and respected by all, be they king or commoner, friend or foe.