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Barbara Erskine


Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF


First published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2021

Copyright © Barbara Erskine 2021

Cover design by Caroline Young © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2021

Cover photographs © Christophe Dessaigne/Trevllion Images (central image); Shutterstock.com (birds and border)

Barbara Erskine asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

Source ISBN: 9780008195861

Ebook Edition © March 2021 ISBN: 9780008195885

Version: 2021-04-20


For Sue

wisewoman and house healer



Title Page




A note on Anglo-Saxon names


The Story Starts

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Author Note

Keep Reading …

About the Author

Also by Barbara Erskine

About the Publisher


A note on Anglo-Saxon names

These have been transcribed in so many ways from the original script which contained letters unfamiliar to us that there are almost as many variations in spelling as there are authors who write about them. I have selected what I personally consider to be the simplest choice.

The main Anglo-Saxon characters in this book are:

Offa (King of Mercia from AD 757–796)

Cynefryth, Offa’s wife, Queen of Mercia

The daughters of Offa:

Ethelfled, in my story is the eldest

Alfrida is the middle daughter

Eadburh (pronounced Edber) is the youngest

Other historical characters in the story:

King Charles of the Franks, who in AD 800 was crowned as Emperor by the Pope and is better known to us as Charlemagne

Beorhtric, King of Wessex AD 786–802

Ethelbert, King of East Anglia d. AD 794

Ethelred I, King of Northumbria, d. AD 796

Nesta, the herb woman, is fictional

Elisedd, Prince of Powys (pronounced Eleezeth) is also fictional, depicted here as the youngest son of the real King of Powys, Cadell ap Brochfael (c. AD 773–808)

Offa also had a son and heir, Ecgfrith, (d. AD 796) who is only mentioned off stage in the story. In a few sources Offa is shown to have had a fourth daughter, Ethelburh. There is little mention of her and some sources suggest she has been conflated or confused with another woman of the same name, who became an abbess at that period. I have not included her in the story.

For more about the real history behind this story see the Author’s Note at the end.



Welsh for Abbot

Calan Mai

Welsh for May Day


Welsh for sweetheart, darling


An early Welsh monastic community


Welsh term for a shelter in the high summer pastures


Latin term used by Bede to describe a thegn or prince, next in rank to the king


Old English for poet or bard


Noble retainer of an Anglo-Saxon king


Welsh king or prince’s household or followers (literally family)

Tylwyth teg

Welsh fairies


Welsh for prince


Council of the Anglo-Saxon kings

The Story Starts


There she was again. Wretched woman! Calling. Endlessly calling.

With a sigh, Simon Armstrong slammed down the lid of his laptop and stood up. His train of thought had vanished. He walked across the room and dragged open the front door. He didn’t expect to see her. So far he hadn’t caught even a glimpse of her, but he had to try. The first time he heard her, he thought it was someone calling their dog out there in the dark, but the more he listened, the more desolate and desperate the cry sounded. He could hardly sit there and ignore it.

The isolated holiday cottage was situated below a high ridge on the border between England and Wales, near part of the overgrown ditch which was all that remained in this part of the world of the famous Offa’s Dyke. The house was small and picturesque, stone-built, with roses climbing over the porch, blessed with every modern convenience, everything he had hoped for when he had booked it online. With its huge, solid but slightly crooked stone chimney, the main front windows, two up and two down, and the blue door with its wooden porch, it resembled a child’s picture of a little house in a fairy story. Outside, an uneven flagged terrace was bounded by a low stone wall and beyond that a lane led up to what must be one of the most stunning views in Britain. From there he could see the Mid Wales hills of the Radnor Forest, the distinctive outline of the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains, and behind him, on the English side of the border, the Malvern Hills and eastwards towards the Shropshire Hills.

But no sign of Elise. Whoever, whatever, she was.

He went back indoors, closed the door and with a shiver walked over to the fireplace. Bending to put a match to the kindling piled in the hearth, he stood and watched as the flames raced across the dry twigs and he felt the first warmth. It was springtime at its most beautiful, glorious during the day, but at night a chill descended on the house, reflecting the fact that it was over a thousand feet up on this lonely, wild hillside. But it wasn’t just that making him shiver.

He made it clear to Christine,

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