~ In a Kingdom By The Sea ~
2 km north of Sunderland along the Northumberland coast – Dark Ages settlement site
The wind was whipping up something fierce from the North Sea, sweeping across the sand and rocks and sea grass, kicking up dry flotsam and blasting it through the damp, salty air. Those standing several hundred yards away from the rocky beach were getting pelted by the wicked winds like the scatter of a shotgun blast. It made it difficult to listen to what the tour guide was saying.
“… and, as you can see, archaeologists from the University of East Anglia have excavated a massive portion of this settlement,” the middle-aged man with the thick glasses was practically shouting to his huddling group. “Carbon testing has concluded that most of what you see is from the eighth and ninth century, but local records and lore tell us that this settlement was badly devastated by Viking raids around the beginning of the eleventh century. In fact, this entire area was its own kingdom during that time called Hendocia and ruled by a man who kept his people fairly isolated. Even the Vikings had a name for this place – Havetrike. The sea kingdom.”
As the wind howled and people who had paid good money for this tour began to look around, a tourist in a green windbreaker tentatively raised his hand.
“How is it there was a kingdom here when England united when William the Conqueror came in 1066?” he asked above the wind. “Wasn’t all of England united at that point?”
The tour guide was nodding his head even before the man finished his question. “That’s very true,” he said as the wind whipped his thin gray hair on-end. “William the Conqueror made it up this way in about 1068 A.D. and managed to subdue all of the north, but this area here was ruled by a man named Eathesfed. He came from a long line of Anglo kings who had married into Norse families, so much so that the family was probably more Norse than Anglo, but the point was that he acted as a buffer when the Northmen came and was known to protect the Anglos in this area. Therefore, even before William came to conquer England, Northumbrian kings had left Eathesfed’s family alone for centuries.”
Another hand went up, this one from a small woman with a bright yellow slicker. “So what happened to his kingdom?”
The tour guide began to walk, waving his group to follow. “We’re not really sure what the dynamics were behind it,” he said, “but eventually, the Vikings turned on Eathesfed and through a series of attacks and raids, wiped out the kingdom. Let me show you something over here.”
The group followed him through the rocky paths, between the foundations of homes that used to stand tall and proud against the sea, and down an embankment. Down here, the dunes provided some shelter from the vicious wind as they entered a flattened area with several mounds dotted about it. The mounds were rocky and man-made, but over the centuries grass had grown over them. The tourists began to disburse as they studied the rocky mounds.
One young woman in particular separated herself from the group. She was rather tall with long, red hair tied up in a messy ponytail that was being battered by the wind. She wandered down one branch of the rocky path, examining the big, grassy mounds.
Behind her, she could hear her boyfriend and his parents, chattering in that annoying fashion that seemed so exclusive to their family. She’d never even met his parents until they joined them on vacation here in Britain, and then it became all about them and their desire to seek out their roots. Gone were the plans she and her boyfriend had made. Now, it was all about Mom and Dad, and the boyfriend went right along with them.
She was genuinely trying to be patient and flexible, but Mom and Dad apparently didn’t have the same attitude, hence ending up at this Dark Ages site on a tour that was taking them to every sand dune and grassy swamp in Northumberland. The old folks had taken over. Boyfriend had turned into a pussy. She was thinking that an abrupt return to America was looking pretty good right about now – alone.
“Everyone,” the tour guide was calling above the whistling wind. “Come over here, please. I would like to show you some of the local lore.”
The young woman glanced over to her right, seeing that the tour guide was standing near one of the big, grassy mounds. She wandered over in that direction, realizing that the mound didn’t look like the others; it seemed kind of big and box-like whereas the other mounds were round. More than that, there was a pillar-like rock positioned next to it, worn down over the centuries of taking a beating from the elements. The tour guide lifted his hands to get the group’s attention.
“Here we have the basis for some local folklore,” he said, pointing to the box-shaped mound. “It is said that a fair maiden died young and was buried in this tomb. The pillar next to it is reputed to be her lover, who was so distraught at her passing that he stayed next to her tomb and refused to move, eventually turned to stone by the sand and sea salt. Do any of you recall the poem by Edgar Allan Poe entitled Annabel Lee?”
A few people nodded but most shook their heads. The tour guide continued. “It is rumored that Poe wrote that poem based on this tale of a young maiden’s death and her lover’s refusal to leave her side.” He reached into his pocket and began to pull out pieces of green copy paper, cut into quarters, and handed them out to the tourists. “Here is the poem in full, but when you read the last stanza, I think the impact of this tomb and its lonely pillar becomes more poignant. A woman who died young and the young man who refused to accept it.
‘For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee: –
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea –
In her tomb by the sounding sea.’”
Everyone was reading the paper, talking amongst themselves and jockeying to get a better look at the tomb and pillar. The boyfriend and his domineering parents pushed through some people to walk right up to the pillar and touched it with their greedy hands. At least, that’s what the girlfriend was thinking as she watched them. She was thinking they didn’t have a right to touch it. She was really coming to hate those people.
Turning away, she walked along the backside of the boxy tomb. Grass was mostly grown up all around it but here on the backside, there had been some protection from the driving wind and sand that came up off the ocean. The backside wasn’t as grassy. In fact, there were patches of stone that were visible through the growth. The girlfriend knelt down next to a particularly exposed patch near the bottom, peering at what looked like some kind of carvings.
It was a swirly pattern, she thought. No…not swirls, petals. Yes, definitely petals, shaped like a dome. As she dared to reach out and brush away some of the accumulated sand and dirt, she could clearly see flowers etched into the stone. As she brushed away a little more dirt, she caught the flash of blue out of the corner of her eye.
Bluebells. They were growing wild amongst the sea grass, tiny bells of blue among the vastness of the grayish-green grass that flowed so sleek and shimmery as the wind blew. A glimmer of an idea came to her as she watched the bluebells dance and she looked back to the etchings on the tomb. Indeed, she thought they might be the bluebells all around her. The glory of life carved on a monument to death. The more she gazed at the bluebells, the more certain she was that those were the flowers on the stone. The fair young maiden had undoubtedly loved them.
Standing up, she brushed the sand off her knees and moved around the front of the tomb. The tour group including the pushy Mom and Dad had moved off to another series of tombs towards the north. The boyfriend trailed behind them. The girlfriend’s gaze lingered on the tour group a moment before turning her attention to the pillar. It was just a stark piece of rock, worn in the elements and, just like the handsy Mom and Dad, she found she couldn’t resist putting her hands on it, too, but in her case it was different. As her hands drew near, it was as if she felt she had a right to touch it. It wanted her to touch it. She could feel the pull like a moth to the flame. The girlfriend put her hands on the stone.
A strange sense of warmth immediately enveloped her. Shocked, she yanked her hands away. She stared at the pillar as if seeing it through new eyes. Over to her left, the tour guide was calling his group. The settlement is this way! She could hear him yelling but she was reluctant to respond.
Impulsively, she put her hand on the stone again and the same sense of warmth swarmed over her, like the embrace of a lover. She gasped and yanked her hand away. Maybe she was going crazy. As the tour guide called to the herd again, she knew she didn’t want to go but if she didn’t, it was a long walk back to civilization. There was something about the mysterious pillar, this ghost of a romantic legend, that made her want to stay.
With a heavy sigh, she shoved her hands into her pockets and realized there was something in the left one. Pulling it out, she saw that it was the green piece of paper with the poem on it that the tour guide had passed out. Pausing next to the tomb, she began to read it.
Like an unseen hand, the words reached up to grab her, but their meaning… they did an injustice to what really happened in the kingdom by the sea. She wasn’t sure how she knew there was far more to it, but she did. Pretty words of a bygone era summarized quite nicely. But the truth behind it, the lore of centuries past, was something different and powerful altogether.
Somehow, the girlfriend could imagine the story of the maiden and her lover as if, long ago, she had once been a part of it.