Northman Part 2 – The Earls of Mercia Book 4

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.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Northman-Part-Earls-Mercia-Book-ebook/dp/B00NV1FZCS

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.

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Northman Part 2 is written … so what now?

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

Chapter 1

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.