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Authors: Helen Hollick

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Scalpi rubbed his bearded chin with his calloused hand. Born not four miles from this very road, he knew their exact position. Either of the two villages lying ahead, Nazeing or Epping, would offer an inn. Or there was Waltham. He described all three, but added, “Eadric the thegn is as near a distance, if we take a track that follows south-west. There is no more trustworthy man, and his wife possesses much knowledge of healing.”

Leofgar nodded. It was as suitable a place as any.

7

Winchester

Emma stood by the narrow window of her upper-floor room. She was cold, but did not move away from the draught. The wind, carrying a first early flurry of snow, buffeted relentlessly against the thick glass, finding small cracks and fissures in the wooden frame and around the lead that bound the small and expensive panes. The fingers of her right hand toyed with one of the rings that adorned her left, her gaze following the slow, hobbling gait of a lame beggar making his way up the street that ran the other side of her boundary wall. The High Street had been busy for much of the day, but with the November afternoon drawing in towards dusk and the onset of unwelcome snow, people had scurried for the warmth of their homes or the companionship of the taverns. The morrow, the seventeenth day of the month, was market day and then, whatever the vagaries of the weather, Winchester would become as bustling as a beehive at the height of summer. For now, the town appeared to be descending into winter hibernation.

Winchester was a royal and ancient city. The palace was of the Saxon style, said to have been built originally for the great King Alfred of Wessex himself. With timber and wattle walls, the domineering Hall, more than seventy-five feet in length and half that in width, boasted towering arched beams set beneath a high cruck roof, topped with overlapping wooden shingles. Only the numerous churches of Winchester and the imposing Minster, which rose majestic in all its glory a short walk up that same High Street, were constructed in stone—and then there was Emma’s private residence; a rarity, one of the few non-ecclesiastical structures in all England to be partially stone-built and bear glass windows.

Emma’s Queen’s Hall had been erected during the first years of her marriage to the Dane, Cnut, a time when he, as a usurper king, had urgency to prove that he had shed the barbarian culture of his ancestors and had adopted the civilisation of a Christian. Upon her marriage Emma could have asked anything of him; she chose to have built upon her dower land a residence that befitted her status. Constructed in Norman stone in the French style, it was grand in design although modest in size. The boundary wall stood higher than a man astride a horse, its gateway leading through to an impressive square courtyard, edged by timbered buildings: kitchens, stables, storerooms. Opposite stood the two-storeyed building that had become Emma’s favourite home. Solid. Secure. The ground floor was much as any noble-born’s Hall, save that the walls and vaulting were of stone. This was the public place, where meals were served and audiences taken. A narrow wooden staircase at the rear led up to the first floor, to the privacy of the Queen’s own rooms, which were comfortable and warm, richly furnished and hung with splendid tapestries. This had more traditional timber beams, and walls infilled with daub and plaster, with only the two crudely designed chimney alcoves built of fireproof stone.

There were three rooms: the solar, Emma’s sitting room where she would read or sew or conduct private meetings that were not for the Hall’s open-eared attention; her bed-chamber, with in one corner a chapel; and, beyond the bed-chamber, a third room, with a door of solid-carved oak. A small, windowless room without furniture or draperies, containing only several large and weighty chests. The royal treasury of England, which Emma, as was her right and duty as Queen, held in safe protection.

A horseman rode along the street, his head tucked in against the bite of wind, his face muffled by his thick-woven winter cloak. The Queen watched him, mildly interested. A well-bred horse, the rider dressed in garments declaring him to be of moderate status—was he a royal messenger? To her own annoyance, Emma held her breath…but he rode past the gateway, turned into the next lane and disappeared from view. He was not, then, come from the palace. She watched the street, waited. Her son was in Winchester, accompanied, so she had heard, by that awful man Champart and several earls, among them Godwine. That brought some cheer, for Godwine had shown himself to be a friend on more than the one occasion. Yet, Emma was forced to reflect to herself, he had not always kept his faith with her cause.

The King had ridden in yester afternoon, but no summons had come for her. He remained displeased with her, then, but when was he not? In frustration Emma rubbed away the breath that had steamed on the glass. She would not lower herself to send word to him, would not allow him to witness her niggling anxiety. Why did the product of her own flesh and blood not trust her to do what was best to govern England? Why could he not accept the advice born of her accumulated wisdom? Why? Because of a few harsh decisions that she had been forced to make in the past—decisions made to keep the peace and save England. He had no conception of the reality of being a king—or queen. Did not understand the responsibilities that occasionally weighed heavy on the heart, conscience and soul. He would. One day he would have to make a choice that would be hard to explain to his Maker at the Last Judgement. And then, ah, then he would understand what it meant to be an effective and efficient ruler of a land as diverse and complex as England.

Daylight was fading. Emma snorted. Why was she fooling herself? Why did Edward not trust her—because there were too many rumours spitting from the lips of her enemies, that was why! Oh, she herself paid little mind to rumour, unless there was adequate proof to back the tattle, but Edward? Huh, he revelled in gossip!

This latest nonsense. He suspected her of sending written invitation to Magnus of Norway to come make a try for the English crown. Did Edward think her to be such a fool as to commit treason to parchment? Should Magnus turn his attention from the difficulties of annexing Denmark for himself and glance also in England’s direction…well, she might then be interested in advocating his cause…but to invite him here? To play openly into Edward’s hand? Madness!

Obviously Edward had no desire to see her. Let him sit and moulder in that damp and draught-riddled palace of his! By right, as Queen she had charge of the treasury, the jewels, the gold, silver and coin. The wealth of England was secured in those locked oak chests in the room beyond her bed-chamber. And while she held
that
security he was as tied to her as a new-born babe is bound to the necessity of the breast.

“Alysse,” she commanded, turning suddenly from the window into the dimness of the chamber. “I would have the candles lit, this dismal day tires me.” Emma suppressed an exasperated sigh as she folded the shutter across the window. What was she to do about Edward? What, in all practicality, could she do? I will dine here in privacy,” she added as she settled herself into her chair. “I have no inclination to share the merriment of the Hall.”

It was foolish and undignified to feel rejected. She had no wish to venture out into the cold evening to attend the banal company at a hypocritical court. All those self-important men, Leofric, Siward—what a vile stench emanated from the moth-addled wolf-skin cloak that man insisted on wearing! He was a Northerner, of course, with the poor manners and oafishness of that uncivilised area of England. Why could she not banish this dejection at not being summoned?

The girl lit the candles, bobbed a curtsey and left the room to see about food for her lady. Emma stretched her feet to the warmth of the hearth and laid her head against the high back of the chair. The chamber was still and quiet, with only the crackle of hearth flames, a shifting log, the occasional muffled sound filtering from the High Street. Her hands fell limp, her jaw slackened. She dozed, only to wake abruptly moments later, startled by sounds beyond the door. She stood, her brows dipping into a furrow of disapproval. How dare her men make disturbance beyond the privacy of her rooms! She moved angrily towards the door, her hand coming up to reach out for the latch; she stopped, the raised hand going instead, in a rush of unexpected fear, to her throat.

A voice she recognised sounded loud and insistent on the wooden stairs, accompanied by the scrape and stamp of men’s boots. The door latch lifted and the door itself was flung open.

Edward walked into the room. His badger-fur hat and the shoulders of his cloak were pattered with melting snow crystals sparkling like miniature diamonds in the disturbed flicker-dance of frail yellow candlelight. “Mother,” he said, acknowledging her shallow curtsey. He strode to the fire to warm the chill from his fingers, his back to her and the room.

Emma glanced at the men hesitating beyond the threshold. “Is it so intimidating to visit me, Sir,” she remarked, her voice scathing, “that you dare not come unless escorted by three of your noblest and most brave earls?” She turned, composed and serene to the door. “My Lords, pray enter the lioness’s den. The beast within has not eaten, but I assure you she is not unduly ravenous.” Emma accompanied her words with a slight gesture of her hand, noting, with thin pressed lips, that her visitors were flanked by six of Edward’s housecarls, ostentatiously bearing arms.

Edward, lifting his cloak so that he should not sit on its dampness, seated himself in Emma’s chair. He did not lean back, but kept his chilled fingers to the warmth. His long and slender hands were so prone to the cold. He detested winter. November in particular depressed him; so many dull and dreary days stretching ahead.

Warmed, slightly more comfortable, the King nodded to his bodyguard, who moved with determined strides across the room, heading for the inner closed door. Emma walked swiftly to bar their way. “There is nothing beyond this door save my bed-chamber. My private room.”

Edward barely looked at her as he replied. “I have no care for your bed-chamber, madam, nor for whom you may occasionally invite within it.” He flickered a glance at Godwine, his insinuation quite open. Godwine’s face tinged pink but he held his tongue. “It is the chamber beyond that interests me,” he continued.

The Queen forced an easy, pleasant smile, realising it would do her no service to lose her temper. “I assure you,” she insisted, “the chamber you refer to is adequately secure. It requires no additional scrutiny.”

“Mayhap not,” Edward answered, rising to his feet and dusting creases from his tunic. “But I feel a royal treasury ought be housed where a king can keep a close eye to it.” He offered his mother a slight, informal bow. “However, I thank you for the good care that you have taken of England’s wealth until now. Do let my men pass, Mother.”

Emma had no choice but to comply. She stepped to one side and watched, helpless, as the men began removing the heavy chests from the strong-room, impotent fury blazing in her vivid blue eyes. No word passed anyone’s lips as each chest was removed; the only sound being the laboured breath and grunts of the six men as they struggled to negotiate the steep wooden stairs down to the Hall below.

With the last box gone, Edward strolled to the outer door, where he paused and smiled mockingly. “I would suggest, madam, that you seek lodging at Wilton or, if you prefer, I can arrange a position somewhere as abbess. There must be a place in my realm that would be willing to take you. Or perhaps you would seek retirement in your homeland of Normandy?” His smile broadened, sickly sweet. “Mayhap Cnut left you some legacy in his land across the sea. Would Norway welcome you?”

Because of that vicious rumour she was to be packaged off, sent into obscurity, within a nunnery, Emma clenched her teeth, bit back a torrid retort. She would rather drain the lifeblood from her wrists first! “I am perfectly content here in Winchester, I thank you.”

“But madam,” Edward answered placidly, “this residence will be beyond your means to maintain, I would advise you to seek somewhere”—he paused for effect—“cheaper to reside.”

Emma could no longer hold her anger. “You insult me! I have plenty wealth, enough to—”

Interrupting, Edward tossed his last jibe, enjoying every cruel and calculated moment. “Enough to what? To pay for soldiers to swell Swegn Godwinesson’s pathetic little army? Enough to finance a fleet of ships for Magnus of Norway to attack England? No, madam, you
had
wealth. You
had
my treasury, I now have it, all of it, including your lands and movables. You will retire with grace, as befits a woman of your age, and you will no longer be allowed to commit further treason against the Crown.”

“How dare you!” Emma hissed. “You cannot take my lands from me!”

“Ah,” Edward retaliated, “for the charge of treason I can.” He gestured to Siward who had remained with Godwine and Leofric on the far side of the door. “My Lord Earl carries the necessary papers. They are documented in a court of law, duly signed and witnessed.”

Siward removed several rolled scrolls from beneath his cloak, held them so that she might clearly see the seals placed on each. He walked into the room and set them in a row atop a table near at hand.

Emma ignored the scrolls and glared at her son. As king, Edward had every right to confiscate property and goods from whoever he wished, if he had good cause. And any king could, with ease, find such cause if he so desired. “On what do you base your charge? Treason, you say. You have no proof.”

“Should I find it necessary”—Edward raised a warning finger, held her attention—“I could find it.”

The threat was clear, Emma had to accept his will, for now. There was one thing, however, that she would not relinquish. “You have no entitlement to my land and residence here in Winchester. It is my dower land and is outside the jurisdiction of the royal demesne. Beyond the touch of provost or shire reeve. It is land granted me by your father at the time of our marriage.” Then she added bitterly, “Or will you take my dower also? Why not create total scandal and force me into exile?”

Why not indeed? Edward had considered it, but rumour was not enough to discredit his mother entirely. To exile a woman of her standing would be to invite his enemies to unite behind her. No, Edward would not banish her abroad. He needed to keep a close eye on her plotting.

“I have not your unyielding nature, Mother,” he answered. “I have a sense of justice and forgiveness.” Tongue in cheek, he continued, “I must have inherited that from my father.” He moved to the table, sorted through the scrolls, selected one and, crossing the room, tossed it on to the fire. “You may retain your dower property here in Winchester, on condition that you live here quietly.” Edward felt the blood pulsating in his veins; the sweet, sweet essence of victory! He had outmanoeuvred his mother! “Bear that condition in mind, Mother. I would prefer to have you permanently removed. I need only an excuse.” Turning to the door he added a gloating afterthought: “You will hear soon, but I would be the one to tell you. I have ordered your choice of bishop removed from East Anglia. I do not consider Stigand’s poor morals to be suitable.” Dipping his head in farewell he strode from the room, his laughter echoing triumphantly up the staircase.

BOOK: I Am the Chosen King
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