Aethelflaed knows her mother will scold her if she finds out that Aehelflæd sought out her father’s bastard son, but Aethelflaed feels that she owes Osferth the respect of a conversation. She had questioned Sitric and Young Uhtred most sharply on the journey on the road to find her daughter, asking them about how sick Aelfwynn is and how she had been cared for, and she had been surprised by their answer that Osferth had been more concerned with Aelfwynn’s health than avoiding Edward’s men. After seeing her daughter safe and well, Uhtred had spoken to her of the journey and repeated what she had already heard from his son and Sitric. Aethelflaed had found herself thinking on how the son of Alfred expected to respect and protect her daughter has betrothed her without so much as Aethelflaed knowledge, much less blessing, while the son of Alfred least cared for or respected was prepared to fight to defend her daughter from an unwanted marriage.
She finds Osferth far from the great rooms where Aelfwynn recovers and the Eoldermen of Mercia lurk, sitting almost in the kitchens with Uhtred’s other men, sharing a meal. Osferth barely looks up to see who has joined them before he quickly turns his head down. She has seen him fighting fiercely beside her and happy and teasing with Uhtred and his men while she has traveled with them, so it surprises her to see him cowed by her presence. She has seen it before from him, his haste to avoid speaking in her mother’s presence or Edward’s, but it still stings that his reluctance extends to her as well here in Mercia.
“Would you speak with me privately, Osferth?” She tries to voice it as a request end not a command. He hesitates and then simply nods without lifting his head, and with a few looks of alarm towards him and question towards her, Utred’s men retreat towards the kitchen and leave them alone. “I have heard from Sitric, and Utred has confirmed it, that you are much of the reason that my daughter lives. That you were tireless in healing and praying for her.”
“I did only want I would do for any child, Lady.” He says softly, meeting her eye for a moment before looking away.
“And yet I think Aelfwynn was not just any child to you. Was she?” She thinks perhaps it could simply be Uhtred’s affection for her, the connection between them that extends to his men and to her child, but she suspects it is more than that for Osferth.
He sighs resignedly, as though he wishes to avoid the conversation and knows he cannot. “I could not bear to see her ill, or harmed, Lady. None of us could, I think.’
“I was told you were most fierce in her care, and I suspect it is because she shares your blood.” She pauses, choosing her words carefuly. “It would not please my mother for me to say so, but I do not feel it would be right to let it lie forever unspoken. I fee most strongly that your actions, towards Aelfwynn and your actions of the past, would make our father proud. Do make him proud, in heaven.”
Osferth looks up, shocked. Then he frowns at her, as though she is being foolish. “It would not please your mother for you to believe it so, Lady. In the past she wanted Uhtred to return me to the monastery. And I remember my uncle once told me that my mother never had a moment’s peace from sorrow from the day she and I were parted. And Lady Aelswith has now done the same to poor Aethelstan and his mother experiences the same sorrow.”
“Yes...” Aethelflaed felt for him, but she knows not what she could say to Osferth to cool his anger, or what was in her power to to resolve the situation. She hardly knows whether to believe the boy is legitimately born or not, as she was in Mercia when he was born and when his mother was set aside. She has never agreed with all of her mother's decisions, or even her father's, but she has always felt it would be a violation of the commandments to disobey them, even for the child's sake.
“And he was torn from his sister, his twin sister. I have heard nothing of her or her wellbeing.” Osferth said, working up to a temper.
“I had forgotten the sister,” Aethelflaed said, surprised. “The last I had known she was to be put in the care of a nunnery.”
“Yes, when she was a small child. Which nunnery? What of her now? Her wellbeing? Does she live? It has been years. Does young Aethelstan even know he was born a twin?” Osferth sighs again, and calms himself. She sense he believes it improper to scold her for the actions of her mother and brother, but she also realizes that he would never be able to feel comfortable scolding them. “I did what I did for your child because I remember what it is to suffer from royal blood. She became sick because she was fleeing a marriage, that only was decreed because of her position. I cannot forget what it is to be cast aside.” He says softly, not meeting her eyes. Aethelflaed feels the shame of knowing how her family has treated one of their own and doing nothing about it.
“I shall look into the wellbeing of the child. And I thank you for your candor. While I respect my mother, I am not always inclined to make the same decisions as her. You should not speak to her as you have to me but I find your words very wise.”
He simply nods at that. She can see in his expression the long years of avoiding the wrath of her mother. “What do you know of Aethelstan’s future?”
“Nothing, in truth. I know he is to be presented to Edward-“
“That will go poorly," Osferth interrupts. "He wanted the children once, but he was browbeaten into forgetting them.”
“If it goes poorly, I shall take an interest in Aethelstan's wellbeing. Living at Saltwic with my daughter was not the worst place he could live, even if would displease some.”
“I understand he was happy there.” Osferth smiles at that. “He made young Stiorra most cross, though.”
“She is a spirited young woman.” Aethelflaed smiles Osferth simply nods again, and she feels the conversation coming to a close, to her regret. She has hardly spoken to him over the years, save for battle strategies and practicalities while traveling. She knew nothing of how he feels about her father, their father, and the circumstances of his upbringing, but she sees she was foolish to never think on it. Perhaps she will be able to forge a kinder relationship with him in the future. She certainly has found him to be far less foolish than Edward over the years.