Oh, yeah, merely days until release now. I’ve typed my fingers a few millimetres shorter than they should be, and I’ve edited until I can’t remember where ‘ ” , . and ; should all actually be placed, but hopefully … yes hopefully, it’s not got any glaring plot holes or annoying bits where I’ve gone over past events and put a different sheen on them.
I feel pleased and relieved in equal measure to have finished the book because it takes me past the point that I’ve most heavily researched so far which means that I know get to do some more research and fill in all the gaping holes on my ‘time line charts’ that I use when I’m constructing a plot. The thing with historical fiction is you have to research past the time limit you want to write about, as well as before, so that you get the context for events correct.
But enough of me, here’s another little glimpse into the world of Northman Part 2. Enjoy.
Chapter 11 – 1014 – Leofric – London
He barely knew where to look and who to make eye contact with. Not that he was an untried youth at the Witan, but right now, there was such a swirl of alliances and counter-alliances that it was almost safer to speak to no one.
That said, his father had instructed him to speak with whom he could and learn what he could, but he felt a little tongue tied, a little unsure of himself. He was, after all, clearly marked as Ealdorman Leofwine’s son, the good one, the one who didn’t contravene every action his father made. It was almost as much of a burden as the one his older brother carried. For some reason, because he was the good son, men and women of the royal Witan felt as though they could ask him anything, allude to all sorts of rumours that they’d heard about Northman, and generally make him feel uncomfortable. It was difficult to keep up the pretence of outrage sometimes, and they’d been more than one occasion where he’d had to bite his lip to stop himself from saying something that would put a lie to what was really happening.
As his brother walked past him, he blankly looked through him, but all the time, he was communicating as best he could with the older brother he felt he’d barely begun to know. He’d enjoyed their time together when they’d been trapped inside London, and then had stayed there to welcome their new King. This lightening fast change back to the rift that ran through their family was unwelcome and distressing. He missed his brother already and it had only been a handful of days. They’d been close as small children, very close and he’d always been a little in awe of him and keen to be just like him. He still held to that belief now, but he knew in his heart that he’d never be able to endure what his brother had. He simply wasn’t strong enough to turn his back on his family. He needed them.
He felt a cold nudge on his hand, and tweaked the ear of his faithful hound. Unlike his brother and his father, his original hound had died three years ago, and now he had a new one, a well-trained female but a magnet for the male dogs anywhere he took her. He’d wanted to name her Hunter after his father’s old dog, but his mother had asked him not to, saying that his father still thought of his old dog too often. Instead he’d named her Beauty, his mother having told him that Killer was perhaps inappropriate, although she’d said it with a wry smile. She was a good hound, and faithful to the end. In this room of people and animals, she was happier than him, but pleased to keep him comfortable as he brooded on the events that had befallen his family since Swein claimed the throne.
He’d heard far more of the debates of the ealdormen than they thought, and he’d decided that all of them were fools for not gifting the throne to Cnut. He thought Cnut was the sort of dynamic King that his country needed. He knew how to use his sword and shield, and he also seemed to know when it was better to use the power of his tongue and thoughts. Leofric could admit that he was under the spell of the older youth. He didn’t begrudge him his new wife, but he would have quite liked his ships and the respect he’d earned from his men and his father’s men.
He’d not voiced his opinions to his father because he knew he already half shared them, and that was enough for Leofric. His father was a man of deep thoughts and careful actions. Leofric knew he was rash and more personable and he also knew that if he didn’t watch what he said and did, he’d land himself in trouble, and not with his father, but with his father’s enemies. As such, being at the Witan was difficult for him. He had to watch his every word and his every action.
It was quite simply easier for him to sit with his hound than with anyone else.
Not that there weren’t other youths at the Witan that he could have spoken to. It was just that they were all someone else’s sons, or someone else’s nephews and they were all as constrained as he was.
And there weren’t many young lady’s either. They were all at their respective homes, locked up tight against the ravages of either Cnut or the uncouth young men of the Witan. His own sister was in the same predicament, and he knew she loathed it. He almost pitied his mother for having to listen to her near constant grumbling about how unfair it all was. Almost. He couldn’t deny that he was pleased she wasn’t there bending his ear.
His father walked towards them, a faint smile on his tired face.
“Have they all gone to plot?” he asked, turning so that he stood beside his son and looked out at the other people walking through the hall, conversing as they went, or just intent on their next errand.
“Yes, Northman called on Uhtred, Olaf and Thorkell.”
His father nodded as though he’d expected it.
“Well, I didn’t expect him to include me,” he chuckled darkly. “His hatred for me, whilst still uncalled for, has never faltered in the last ten years.”
Leofric wasn’t used to his father speaking to him quite so openly, and he struggled for a moment to think of a reply.
“If you’re to serve me in any capacity at the Witan, you’ll have to get used to hearing my thoughts, and responding as you think yourself,” his father said, his words surprising Leofric. “I don’t surround myself with men who only tell me what I want to hear,” his father continued, “and don’t forget that. But don’t make up opinions just to be difficult either. Horic and Wulfstan always told me everything they thought, whether I wanted to hear it or not. Oscetel is a little more circumspect, he thinks before he speaks, but I need to hear everything all the same. So what do you think about today’s events.”
Leofric gave the question the attention it deserved before he spoke.
“It’s just like it always was,” he finally said, his eyes taking in the expansive room and the people pressed within it. The din of conversation
was almost deafening in the confined space and he’d have liked nothing more than to escape.
“It is, you’re right, and that’s what we have to be aware of. It’s as it always has been. It’s as if the winter months never happened, and I don’t think that Aethelred will take kindly to anyone who reminds him of his temporary banishment. Once Eadric has chased Cnut from our land, the King will expect everything to fall into place as it used to do. I hear he’s sending messengers and men to bring Emma and the children home.”
Leofric knew that his father wasn’t saying something with his words, for all that they appeared open and honest enough, and then he grasped it.
“You don’t think it’ll be like it was before?”
“No, I don’t, and good lad. The King is a fool if he doesn’t realise how much has changed. Not with the way that the land is governed, taxes collected and the men and women provisioned and fed, but within the circles of the Witan everyone has realised just how vulnerable the King is, and how reliant he is on Eadric, who’s a conniving little bastard at the best of times.”
“What will you do?” Leofric asked, intrigued by his father’s reasoning.
“What all good ealdormen should do. Govern my lands for the King, collect his taxes and see to the roads and the bridges. But no, I won’t be going into battle against Cnut, and neither will I be warning him of what might be about to happen. For all that I respect him, I need to protect my own family first.”
“So we’ll be going home?” he asked, amazed that his father would leave London at such a time.
“Yes, when the King announces the attack, and the men of the fyrd are gathered, we’ll be leaving London and returning to Deerhurst. The King will not want me here, not until some other catastrophe occurs.”
“And you think it will?”
“Oh it’s bound to lad. Aethelred holds onto the throne by a hair’s breadth and by the good wishes of the other ealdormen and churchmen, and because he thinks he has Eadric’s resources at his fingertips. But when his older sons realise that they’re once more being excluded there will be rumblings of discontent, and this time they know that they can dislodge their father with the right support.”
Leofric was shocked by his father’s words and felt his mouth dropping open.
“You think they’ll be a power struggle?”
“I think there will be. Yes. Now, go and see how Athelstan is for me. He likes you, and your brother but make no mention of him. See if you can gleam his thoughts.”
Leofric felt a little worried by the task assigned to him, and also quite honoured. His father hadn’t yet trusted him with any delicate matter.
“Take the dog with you,” his father said, “Athelstan likes the hounds we breed.”
Calling to Beauty, the hound lurched to her feet and walked with far more confidence than
Leofric felt towards the tables that Athelstan and his brother and their men had occupied. They were a slightly rowdy lot, but nothing that drew attention to them.
Athelstan was bent over the table, a drinking cup before him, as well as a trencher containing the carcass of a pig. He wasn’t alone, his brother sat beside him talking quietly. When he saw Leofric approach he smiled in welcome and gestured that he should sit. His glance shot over Leofric’s head, and although he wanted to turn and see if it was his father that Athelstan had made eye contact with, he refrained. Athelstan and his father had once had a close relationship, and Leofric assumed his father was hoping to rekindle that.
“It pains me to hear of the rift with your brother,” Athelstan said, his voice quiet so that no one else could hear them for all that they sat opposite each other on wooden stalls.
“He’s always been a stubborn fool,” Leofric offered with what he hoped was the expression of a martyr.
“Too much time with Eadric will do that to a man,” Edmund joked wryly, and Leofric managed to laugh with the two brothers.
“Your father is once more beset on all sides,” Athelstan continued, but Leofric only nodded. It was an obvious statement.
“And you, how do you think you fit into the King’s new plans.” Athelstan’s eyes hardened at the question but he didn’t become angry, more resigned than anything.
“We don’t, as usual. Once, when we were boys we were the most important thing to him in the world, but now, well, he has new sons and younger son’s that he can control. We’re just an annoyance, nothing more.”
“So will you stand with him against Cnut.” At that Edmund sucked in a breath and Leofric feared he’d said something he shouldn’t.
Athelstan cautioned his brother with his eyes and spoke forcefully.
“It’s one thing to have our own father withhold any hope of succeeding him from us, but it’s quite another for a total stranger to lay claim to the throne. We’ll fight to protect it, whether it’s for my brother, my half-brothers, or myself. The English throne belongs to the family of Wessex.”
“So you’ll go to war against Cnut then?” he pressed.
“We’ll do as we’re instructed,” Athelstan said, his tone still dark. “For now,” he qualified and Leofric took the time to think how he’d feel if his father placed so little trust and support in him. He knew he wouldn’t like it, not one bit.
“Are you going to war?” Edmund queried a little defiantly.
“If we’re asked, but Lord Leofwine thinks we won’t be.”
“I’m inclined to agree.”
“And if we don’t we’re going home.”
At that Athelstan fixed him with his calm eyes, and Leofric watched emotion flash across his face.
“Leofric, your father is a man who reads the politics of this Witan better than anyone. Learn from him. Absorb all you can from him. I wish I’d been lucky enough to have him as a role model.”
As the two brother’s exchanged a knowing look, Northman wracked his memory trying to work out, once more, what his father was saying but not saying all at the same time. The word ‘failure’ swept through his mind, and he relaxed then. It would be good if his father distanced himself from whatever failure in battle Eadric was brewing up.