I’ve officially reached the end of all the research I’ve done for my dissertation, which means that the next Earls of Mercia book is going to take A LOT more research. But, I’m not dissuaded by it, oh no, and I am going to take the time to celebrate. And neither should there be any fear that the full story won’t be written. I know what happens and I plan on sharing it with everyone. But here’s a bit of Northman Part 2 for you to enjoy (along with me)!
Northman Part 2
The room was uncomfortably warm, but still the King shivered in his oversized bed that so recently had belonged to another King, Aethelred. Leofwine, Uhtred, Ulfcytel, Aelfric, the new ealdormen Godric and a brooding Eadric had been summoned before King Swein, first of that name, by his son Cnut. Cnut’s face was hooded, his expression difficult to interpret in the light of what was about to happen. He was a youth and yet he covered his own thoughts well.
Archbishop Wulfstan was at the King’s side, talking softly to him and when speech became too much for the mortally ill man, Wulfstan uttered prayers instead, Swein’s eyes closing either in pain or in joy at the words he heard. It was difficult to tell.
Uhtred and Ulfcytel were clearly alarmed by what they saw. They’d had no inkling that the King had been wounded in battle as he successfully usurped the crown of England. But then, Leofwine had only been aware because he’d seen the tell tale signs at the coronation feast a few weeks ago. He’d hoped the King would recover but he hadn’t and now the events of the last six months were going to culminate in the waste of a good man’s life for a crown he’d never really needed. Not when he already had one.
Eadric’s feelings were difficult to interpret. Swein had made no pretence of his distaste for the man and had not allowed him to leave his sight in
London. Yet Eadric seemed as disturbed as Uhtred and Ulfcytel. Clearly he’d been too caught up in his own concerns to pay any close attention to the King. He’d spent his time reconciling himself to the reality of what had happened. Aethelred, his little puppet King, was gone and he no longer had control over the King of England.
Swein had brought his own commanders with him when he’d set out to take the English throne and they stood within the room as well. Erik, Olaf, Ragnor, Harold, Sigurd and Halfdan. Leofwine had spoken with the six men often in the last few weeks, although Swein had made it clear that they were the commanders of his ship-army, not men he planned on rewarding with land in England. No, those men would come soon from Denmark as soon as word reached Harald of his father’s triumph, or rather, they would have done. Leofwine hoped news would reach them soon of their King’s death so that any unfortunate altercations could be avoided.
It made for a strange scene. The men of Denmark, grim faced and subconsciously standing close to Cnut. Leofwine was unsure if they meant to protect him, or if they were protecting themselves.
And then there were the English men. All had now bowed their knee to Swein. All apart from Eadric had become his commended men and yet other than the name of their King little had changed for them. Leofwine was unsure what tomorrow would bring.
Wulfstan’s eyes met Leofwine’s one good one and he beckoned him forwards. Bending to speak to
the man who knelt before the King, Wulfstan spoke,
“The King wishes to speak to you but I’m not sure if he’s capable. You’ll stay in case he regains his senses?”
Nodding to show he would Leofwine stood silently behind Wulfstan, mouthing the prayers along with the priest. He’d not often stood a death vigil and sought comfort in the familiarities of the prayers his own Abbot intoned in their family church.
There was silence apart from the rasping of the King’s breath through his tired lungs.
A bead of sweat formed on the tip of Leofwine’s nose and he angrily brushed it aside. Time passed slowly, the noise of the royal hall continuing beyond the thin wooden walls as normal, the yelps of trodden on dogs and the crackle of the larger cooking fire coming through the thin screens, but no one in that small space dared move, not even Eadric.
Leofwine glanced at the man and noted a faint smile gracing his face and that he stood more proudly than he had done since Christmas Day. Eadric was clearly already plotting, but who would he chose as his next King? Would he recall Aethelred back from his temporary exile, or would he look to Swein’s son, Cnut? To Thorkell or even to the atheling Athelstan?
Leofwine pondered the same. He’d made his promise to Aethelred that should Swein die he’d work for his reinstatement. But now he quaked a
little at that promise. Whilst it might be the right
thing to do, the honourable way to act, he couldn’t deny that the prospect of peace under a strong King was far more appealing. With Cnut set above them as their King, young as he was, it had to be hoped that he and his brother back in Denmark would work to deflect any more raiders. Cnut as their King could be their salvation, provided the brothers stayed firm allies.
But then, he’d made a promise to Aethelred, sworn an oath as his commended man and he should follow through with that promise. After all, he’d given his word and his honour depended upon it.
There was also Athelstan or even Edmund, both strong warriors, good at commanding their men and far more in tune with the needs of the people and the country than their father had ever been. Neither of them had fled England, preferring instead to hold their own lands and see what Swein had planned for them. It now appeared that they’d face no retribution for being the sons of the old King, none at all, unless Cnut took the throne. Then they could still lose all.
Uhtred shuffled in the quiet, his eyes glancing at Leofwine. He too was thinking of the future. Uhtred had quickly succumbed to Swein’s devastating attack. Quickly he’d bent his knee to save his people from the terrible violence that Swein
had promised. Would Aethelred even want him to remain as his ealdorman if he came back? Would it not be safer to turn to Cnut? Cnut had hinted that,
like his father, he’d keep the English men, even with
their ties to the old King through their marriages and children. He’d not made the same promise for the King’s own sons.
Ulfcytel had not been as quick to accept Swein. He’d held out longer in the face of the attack, even when Swein had established his own counter-kingdom at Gainsborough, almost in Ulfcytel’s lands. He might have turned his allegiance in the end, but he’d not been as happy to do so as Uhtred and that could cause him problems with Cnut. Yet he had swung his allegiance away from Aethelred, and if Aethelred came back he would more than likely punish the man.
And then there was the gloating Eadric. He’d been miserable for weeks, a quiet menace at the back of every meeting, too stupid or too clever to not present himself for the King’s meetings of the Witan even though he was not the Ealdorman for Mercia anymore.
No, Cnut had allied himself firmly with another strong Mercian family, and had made a good marriage there. That it seemed to have been done for love was not lost on Leofwine. Just like his own oldest son, Cnut was headstrong and guided by his feelings. Not the best quality to find in a King but also not the worst.
If Cnut were King then Eadric would never regain his position as Ealdorman of Mercia. Of them all, Eadric would want Aethelred back as King. He’d think no further than that. If Aethelred was
King he would once more be the King’s son by marriage, his power would be returned to him and
he’d be a powerful influence on the King. Eadric’s allegiance to Aethelred was a certainty.
Swein’s eyes fluttered open then, glazed with pain but bright with intelligence. He wasn’t allowing himself an easy death. He looked blearily around and met Leofwine’s eye with a rye smirk on his pain-lined face.
Leofwine stepped closer, and knelt at his King’s side, Wulfstan shuffling un-elegantly out of their way.
“Leofwine,” Swein rasped through his dry lips, spittle on his bearded chin.
“My King,” Leofwine replied, as Swein smiled more widely, his teeth flashing yellow.
“My friend,” Swein continued, his voice a little stronger, his hand moving to grasp Leofwine’s. “My apologies for the ills I ever did you and for my misjudged efforts to kill you.”
Leofwine shrugged the apology aside, it wasn’t the first time he’d heard it and now wasn’t the time to dwell on it.
“And now as friends, I beg you, do what you can for my son. Make him King in my stead for if you do not, he’ll let the men run riot, and the devastation will be vast and sweeping. He doesn’t have my power of restraint.” Swein smirked at the irony of his words for what Englishman could think him capable of restraint after his conquest?
“Swein, you ask much for a youth who has no experience of ruling men and land,” Leofwine said. He’d been expecting something like this from the
King but his blunt words still caught him off guard and he said what he was thinking as opposed to the politic thing.
Swein’s eyes hardened at the words,
“I know the importance of what I ask, and I demand it from you. Make my son King.” The grip on Leofwine’s hand was increasing and Leofwine was shocked that so much strength yet remained in the dying man.
“Swein, you ask much,” he attempted to side step the issue.
“I know what I ask, my friend, and I would have your word that you will do it, and if not tomorrow, then in the next year or two. I can’t think what will immediately happen on my death, but as you say, Cnut may not be everyone’s first choice, but promise me, in fact swear to me, that you will work to restore my family line to this throne. Only then will England ever be free from attack from the men of the north. She is a shining jewel in a generous sea and too many of my countrymen point their ship’s bows towards her.”
Leofwine dipped his head at the words. Swein was no fool. He knew the likely outcomes should Cnut sit upon the throne, and Leofwine could clearly see the logic. It made sense, if only he hadn’t already committed to Aethelred.
“Swein, my friend,” he replied, raising his head and watching the eyes of Swein lighten at the warmer tone he used, “I swear that I will do as much as I can to make Cnut King of England.”
Swein smiled at the words, grasping his hand once more in thanks, and then his eyes closed in pain and they never opened again.