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Authors: Helen Hollick

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Harold did not believe a word of it. “Talk? About what?” When had they ever talked, as opposed to quarrelled? As young men? Harold could not remember a time when the two had exchanged conversation for the simple pleasure of it. As boys? Incessant squabbling in childhood, mostly at Swegn’s instigation, had put an end to any prospect of brotherly companionship. If they had never been friends as children, what hope had they, as grown men, of seeing eye to eye?

“How are you finding East Anglia? It is a rich earldom, is it not?” Swegn hooked the room’s only stool nearer the brazier with his foot, seated himself close to its meagre warmth. His next comment held a tinge of the jealousy that had ever haunted his life. “You have ample opportunity for expanding your purse, I would wager.”

Harold did not rise to the jibe. “Aye,” he said indifferently, “wool, salt and corn, among other industries, provide well enough for a king’s revenue.”

The King’s revenue. Taxation. Two inescapable curses of both rich and poor: famine, and taxes. Only a king was certain of a full belly and enough gold to fill the household coffers. And in return for overseeing their designated portions of the King’s realm the earls—providing they stayed in favour—received a handsome share of those taxes. Except, in Swegn’s considered opinion, some had a more prosperous share than others.

East Anglia, because of its greater size and location, was wealthier than his own fluctuating Borders. Trade flourished in East Anglia, an area of wide skies sailing above fertile land, land which abutted the eastward coast, with safe harbours and bustling ports; land traversed by tranquil rivers and dotted with established, profitable farmsteadings. What had he, Swegn, to his name? Hostile forests and isolated towns cowering behind timber fortifications, all overshadowed by the damned, persistent raiding of the Welsh. And drenched by incessant rain.

“Constant patrolling ensures that my purse remains thin.” Swegn swilled the last dregs of wine around his goblet, watching the pattern of red liquid swirl against the silver. He looked up at his brother, the accusation there behind his voice. “Edward favoured you more than me when he gave you the peaceful fenlands of East Anglia.”

Harold’s angry response came unchecked. He leapt to his feet, sending wine splashing over the rim of his cup. “Peaceful? The Fens? Do you know how many Viking raiding parties we chased offshore last month? Do you know how much trade has been lost to pirates cruising my coast, like basking whales? Three families were butchered but last week at Maldon…”

“Only three?” Swegn retorted with a sneer. “I have lost more than three and twenty to the Welsh!” He had been about to jump to his feet also, but he fought down the impulse. He could not, on this occasion, afford to quarrel with his brother. Taking a deep breath, he patted the air soothingly with a palm. “Nay, I do not want argument. Of course you have problems with our Scandinavian cousins, but you have a fair income to counterbalance your costs. Between them, the two Welsh princes of north and south are bleeding me dry. Gryffydd ap Rhydderch, of the south, Deheubarth, is the worst offender.”

In no mood for hard words, Harold sank back on to the bed. It was late, he wanted to sleep. “Can you not contain the border raiding? Surely, with the men of the fyrd, you have adequate resources to keep watch on those few crossing places over the Severn river?”

“What? The whole year round? There is a limit to how many weeks the fyrd will be called out and these Welsh are wild mountain men, brother, they do not respect inclement weather, as would you or I.” Swegn drained his wine. “What I need to do is hit at them, hard. Burn a few of their farms, slaughter their cattle, take their women and children as slaves.” Swegn stood, walked with quick strides to stand before his brother. “I need to take an English army into Wales, teach Gryffydd a lesson that he will not forget.”

“Good idea,” Harold mumbled drowsily.

Swegn reached forward to grasp his brother’s arm. “I have just come from the Queen, from Emma. She has promised me handsome financial aid. If you provide the additional men I need, I can—”

Harold jerked awake, sat up. “What!”

“I need men. Your men. I have not the ability to furnish an army from my own paltry earldom. With Emma’s promised aid I can have gold to arm them, to feed them, all I need is the men…”

Harold thrust Swegn aside, scrabbling to his feet. “Are you moon-mad?”

“How else can I protect my wealth? I do not have the easy picking that you have been given, brother!” The rage was swelling, red and blotched, over Swegn’s face.

Ignoring the last insult, for in his anger he had barely heard it, Harold bellowed an answer. “And what will the King make of such an army?”

“To protect his realm from the heathen Welsh?” Swegn’s retort was scathing. “He will welcome it!”

“Two earls of the same kindred combining their power? Aided by his mother’s gold? You fool!” Harold stormed to the far side of the room, as if to distance himself from his brother’s stupidity. “Edward will assume us—you—to be gathering an army against him.”

Swegn flapped a hand dismissively. “Nonsense.”

“Are you so inane? Why do you think Emma is here at the same time as our father? She knows full well that we come to Wilton on this date to visit our sister. Her arrival was no coincidence—though Edward would be hard pushed to prove it so. She will fund you, Swegn, but not to furnish an army for Wales. When Edward decides to move against his mother’s meddling in royal affairs our father must side with the King. She is here, mark my words, with the hope of enticing the most powerful earl in all England to support her.” Harold crossed back to the bed, retrieved his boots from where he had left them beneath it, lifted his cloak and scabbard from a hook in a timber wall post. “I would prefer to spend the night with our youngest brothers. They sleep more soundly than do you.” He strode to the door, opened it, looked back over his shoulder, said, “I would assume our father has already rejected the Queen’s plea for aid. You, on the other hand, by supplying her with an army, have walked right into her political web.” He stepped through the door, adding, as he began to walk again, “Treason, when kings come to hear of it, is not rewarded well, brother. Think on that.”

5

London

King Edward sat huddled beneath the heavy weight of his cloak, his hands stuffed beneath his armpits in a futile attempt to keep the bite of cold from his fingers. He was certain his toes had already dropped off, for he could no longer feel them, although his doe-hide boots, like the cloak, were well lined with warm squirrel fur. A swirl of wind-driven rain spattered down the smoke hole in the thatched roof of this, his King’s Hall, the curl of smoke from the hearth fire billowing in sullen clouds beneath the high dust and cobweb-draped rafters. The glistening drops of rain sizzled and hissed into the sulking flames below. This was a dismal place, Edward thought, a creaking, smoke-blackened, wind-battered, timber-built archaic old building. The palace of London—huh! He had never much liked it, nor even as a child when his father, Æthelred, had sat here in this very same royal chair. All those years ago he had regarded this Hall as cold and unwelcoming. A king’s palace? Peasant’s bothy more like! In Normandy the grand dukes built their fortified residences of stone. Stone that was hard to penetrate by wind and army. Stone that displayed strength and grandeur. And permanence. He would build in stone one day, when he could muster the funding. When his damned mother let go her clutch over the royal treasury.

He dabbed at his nose with the edge of his cloak, certain he was beginning a head cold; his throat felt sore and dry, nose running and swollen, his temples throbbed. Mind, his head always ached whenever Emma was present.

Glowering, Edward looked across at her, seated on her queen’s throne a few yards to his left, sited, at his ordering, as far along the dais as was possible. She sat erect, resplendent in her robes, precious jewels sparkling. The council of earls and nobles sat arrayed semicircular before the dais, most eyes not on him, but fixed on the figure of the Queen. He shifted, on this uncomfortable, hard-backed, hard-seated throne, shivering, pulling the cloak tighter around his chest, as the debate swirled around him. Each speaker disagreed with the last, the argument going fruitlessly round and round. Not one of them bothered to ask him, the King, for his opinion on the matter. All seemed to defer to his mother’s view, even those who usually disagreed with her as a matter of course—notably Siward and Leofric. Irritated at being ignored, Edward pouted. “I do not want Stigand to be appointed as bishop of East Anglia, Mother. He is of your choosing, not mine.”

The talk faded as eyes and attention turned to the King. Emma exhaled slowly, holding hard to her patience. What did he know of the delicate task of appointing a new bishop? If the wrong man were to be put in the wrong place—God’s breath, such ineptitude could, overnight, deliver irretrievable power direct into the hands of Rome!

“My Lord King,” she said, a thick mask of honey disguising her annoyance, “I do but use my years of acquired wisdom to advise you. Stigand is a talented and able cleric with an acute grasp of politics.” She smiled pleasantly at her son, though the expression was difficult to maintain. Her fingers itched to slap the peevish defiance from his sullen cheeks; to control her hands she curled her grip around the lioness-heads that formed the carved arms of her chair. Cnut had ordered it made for her, soon after their marriage. He had been a magnificent king, Cnut, strong in body, wise, determined yet open to well-constructed argument. Would England ever see his like again? Not in her son, that was for certain.

“My Lord.” With a modest cough to attract attention, Godwine came to his feet. “This matter has now been discussed at great length. We all”—and he swept his hand around the semicircle of men—“agree that you require a man whose loyalty can be relied upon without question—”

“Loyalty?” Edward interjected with a stab of petulant sarcasm. “To whom?”

“Why”—Godwine spread his hands, innocently puzzled—“to you, Lord. You are the King. To you, and to England.”

“Huh! To my mother, more like.” Edward muttered, slumping further into the cocoon of his cloak.

Giving a small acknowledging bow, Earl Harold stood. Godwine granted him precedence by resuming his seat. Harold had grown in confidence since the Easter festivities, the responsibility of overseeing such a great earldom igniting his abilities. He took his duties seriously—although the lure of a comely woman or the thrill of the hunt could still divert his attention a little too easily. For over an hour the deciding who ought to be bishop had rumbled on and although the inclement weather outside was hardly enticing, Harold had much to do. If he did not leave for Essex soon, he would need delay the journey until the morrow. Another night in this dreary royal stronghold? His groan of dismay at the thought was almost audible. “Sire,” he coaxed with a warm smile, “the coastal lands of East Anglia are under severe threat from Magnus of Norway. It is highly probable that the present irregular sea raids may escalate next spring into full-scale invasion. Magnus regards his claim to your throne as just and valid. I need strong men of influence at my back if I am to maintain authority and calm among the populace of that part of your kingdom.” Harold put as much emphasis on his point as he could. Come the passing of winter, England could well be at war with Norway, and East Anglia or the coast of Kent would be Magnus’s battleground.

Stigand was a shrewd and politically capable man. Despite his personal dislike of him, Harold knew he would be an effective bishop. A man who could keep a firm hand on the greed of certain prelates within the church hierarchy, would be equally capable of instilling trust into the land-folk and the men who would be called upon to make up the army of the fyrd. What more could he add to the argument already put forward? “I support the recommendation of Stigand; he would be welcome in my earldom.” Harold, glancing ruefully at his father, sat.

Wind battered against the window shutters—which, closed, did little to keep out the draught, but effectively barred light—rapping as if demanding entrance. Dusk would be falling within three hours. Earl Siward of Northumbria glanced at his ally, Leofric of Mercia, who shrugged. Neither wanted to stay longer than necessary at this council. In Siward’s opinion, Stigand was naught but a backside licker, a secretive and ambitious cleric who served Emma. There was a rumour that the Queen wanted to place Magnus of Norway on the throne of England and Stigand was of Viking descent. Undoubtedly, Stigand supported Emma’s scheming and whoever supported the Queen most assuredly also supported the Godwines. More arse washers! Between them, the Godwines held over-much power. And the lady presumed, too often, on the authority that she had once held in the past. Stigand, in Siward’s mistrusting mind, was not the right man for a bishopric but perhaps it was wise to give the man enough rope to form himself a noose, one that could eventually loop around Emma’s interfering neck also. Siward did not stand, he merely lifted his right hand, spread his fingers in a gesture of submission. “Godwine and Harold talk sense. Northumbria does not object.”

Edward’s pout intensified. If Siward and Leofric had put up more of a fight…oh, curse it, let the damn woman have her way! His head was pounding, he needed wine and the privacy of his chamber. The King flapped his hand at the cleric seated at a table below the dais. “Record the decision. Stigand is to be appointed Bishop of East Anglia.” He brushed the cloak from his shoulders, made to stand, all others in the Hall instantly coming to their feet, save for Emma.

“Edward,” she said, in the unconsciously supercilious tone that so irritated her son. “We are not yet concluded.” She indicated that he ought to sit; he ignored her, remained pointedly standing, forcing her to rise also. None sat in the presence of a king who was standing, not even a queen, his mother.

She was a tall woman, Emma, thin of figure and face, her manner and voice austere, with little hint of laughter or gentleness about her features or character. Those qualities normally associated with the women’s side of the hearth had been sapped from her, years past, by the succession of scandals and sorrows she had endured. Standing, erect and proud, her gold coronet reflected the flickering of the many torches set about the walls. The rubies in her necklace sparkled blood-red. “We have yet to discuss the matter of your marriage,” she said. “A king must take a wife, A king must have sons.”

“A king must rule his people and serve God,” Edward retorted. “I do not wish for a wife.”

Earl Godwine spoke, placating. “Lord, is it not your duty—”

Edward rounded on him with venom. “Do not remind me of duty sir! It is you, and the traitors you breed for sons, who need reminding of duty!”

Godwine, and Harold beside him, both reddened, both unintentionally glanced up at Emma.

Hurriedly Godwine said, “I am not responsible for my son Swegn. He is earl under your orders, Sire. He acts against Wales in your name.”

“With an army of men paid for by my mother?” Edward strode towards Emma, his face contorted by rage. “And where will they march, I wonder, when Swegn has finished playing his game of shadow-chasing in the Welsh mist? To East Anglia? To join with this new bishop who is a lick-spit to you—to swell Norway’s army when Magnus comes, at your invitation, to try the fit of my crown?”

Emma reacted immediately. “Do you seriously think I would prefer one who is not of my own blood as king? For all that our opinions differ, you are my son. Magnus is not.” With practised skill she returned to safer ground. “Is it not wise,” she said, her tone patronising, “to stem the menace that is repeatedly harrying our Welsh borders? Give the Celts free rein and there will be no end to their audacity.”

Edward conceded the point, but added with a snarl, “I would have preferred to have been consulted.” His mother was the taller by more than a hand-span, he needed to look up to stare into her eyes. “I will let your new-trained lapdog run on his leash, madam, but I warn you, and you, sir.” He spun around to face Godwine, his slender finger pointing accusingly. “I warn you, if Swegn fails to subdue the Welsh, if he wastes the lives of English men and the coin of my treasury, then he and you will reimburse me for his incompetence.”

Edward departed, stumbling down the dais steps in his haste to leave. Emma sank into her chair, a brief sigh escaping her lips. Her son tired her so. Swegn would not do well in Wales, he was too brash, too angry to plan properly, but she needed men such as he loyal to her, to be indebted to her. Swegn, unlike his father—or his brother Harold—would never be troubled by his conscience. And if Magnus should indeed consider securing England for himself, should cease his drunken boasting and act upon his rumoured threats…? Well, Emma would need the rash, the ambitious—and the indebted—to ensure her own safety. Could she perhaps retain her position of Queen Regent under Magnus? A pity it had to be Swegn who had agreed to be her sworn man at Wilton, not the more reliable and competent father, but Godwine might change his mind if the Vikings decided to come raiding next spring.

***

Edward sank gratefully on to the embracing comfort of his bed, his arm shielding his face. “Fetch me wine, Robert,” he ordered in a frail voice. “I need wine to swill the foul taste of my mother from my mouth.”

Robert Champart was already pouring, for he well knew how tense Edward would be after yet another confrontation with that wretched woman. He disliked Emma, judged her guilty of the sins of murder, avarice, treachery and, although it had never been proven, adultery. She would be accountable for that, if not to the justice of this world, then most certainly to the final judgement of God.

For her part, Emma considered Robert, former Abbot of Jumièges, a zealously religious man of middle years, to be arrogant, conceited, hypocritical and repugnantly over-ambitious. There was something suspicious, she felt, about him. Why had he been so eager to leave behind the quiet contemplation of a Norman abbey to become chaplain and confessor to the King of England? Undoubtedly Champart had no intention of remaining in such a humble position for long, not when there was a chance of a bishopric to be filled.

Robert held the goblet against the king’s dry lips, supporting his sagging body around the shoulders with his other arm. Edward sipped and swallowed, his hand resting lightly over Robert’s, his long white fingers touching the firm strength of his chaplain’s. Their eyes met.

“Where would I be without you, Robert?” Edward sighed. “You supported me during those long years of exile. Gave me succour and guidance while I was deprived of my rightful kingdom. And you are with me now, when I am in sore need of companionship.”

Robert desperately wanted to ask who had been awarded the honour of East Anglia. Stigand, he assumed. That God-cursed, sour-faced, obnoxious man, Stigand. Of course it would be he. Emma’s grovelling little runt. Robert had no hope of advancement while she clung so obstinately to her title. She must be toppled; must fall from power! He stroked back the fine, pale hair that had flopped forward over Edward’s pain-furrowed brow, his crooning voice making low, soothing noises.

Edward exaggerated, of course, but it was not Robert’s position to correct an anointed king. If he cared to believe that Robert Champart had been his confidant and friend throughout his exile, then who was Robert to demur? In truth, they had known each other only eight short years, since Edward had left the household of his uncle, Duke Robert of Normandy. While the Duke had lived, Edward had been safe under his protection. An uncle had nothing to fear from an impoverished nephew, but the situation had changed under an only bastard-born son. A seven-year-old boy, with ducal responsibility thrust prematurely upon him, had everything to fear from men grown; men who could, so easily, relieve him of a duchy. Edward had not felt welcome under the patronage of the boy, William, and had removed himself to the sanctity of the abbey at Jumièges, where Robert was abbot. Their mutual liking was instantaneous, but Robert, an ambitious man, saw all too clearly how he could benefit from friendship with one who could claim the title of king. Robert, for all his dedication to God, had few scruples when it came to pursuing his own advancement.

A shy young man, Edward had fallen under Robert’s quiet, contemplative spell; he had found, for the first time in his lonely life, sympathy and companionship. Edward, who had not known the love of a mother or the pride of a father, loved Robert.

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