|Publisher:||Top Hat Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Part One of The Last Great Saxon Earls
By Mercedes Rochelle
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Mercedes Rochelle
All rights reserved.
Disentangling a squirming lamb and nudging it from the woods, a tall sturdy youth stood up, hands on hips, and stretched his back. Suddenly he froze, turning his head at the sound of rustling leaves. For a moment he didn't see anything and he looked at the tree-tops, noting the stillness of the branches. He cocked his head and listened once more before shrugging his shoulders and taking a step. Then he stopped, letting out his breath in a long, wondering aah.
Pushing his way out from the trees, an obviously confused Dane stumbled into the clearing, easily recognized by his forked beard and heavy braids. The man's brawny arms were naked but for heavy gold bands, though his chest was covered with a coat of chain maille. He wore a conical-shaped helm with a long nosepiece. A broadsword was gripped in one hand, poised to strike.
The other's first inclination was to stay hidden. The stranger hadn't noticed him as yet; however, he seemed to be looking with interest at the herd. That was too much. Deciding to take his chances rather than lose a sheep, the youth stepped forward, startling the Dane.
Turning with the agility of a wild animal, the warrior crouched, sword upraised. He eyed the other for only a moment before standing again, and slapping his weapon into its sheath.
"Well, it appears that you and I are alone in this accursed forest," he said familiarly in the Saxon tongue, "and I can see that you are unarmed. My name is Ulf, and I have managed to have gotten myself lost. What be your name, lad?"
The other looked at him curiously. In these days of turmoil, the sight of a Dane was not an uncommon one. But the Saxons tended to keep their distance from these unwelcome visitors, and the herdsman had rarely seen one close up. And yet, though the Danes were cursed as the enemy of England, this man didn't seem to be all that terrible. Indeed, his blue eyes sparkled, and his round cheeks, ruddy above a thick, yellow mustache, bespoke a genial acquaintance with his native ale.
Trusting to his own impulses, the young man held out a hand. "My name is Godwine, son of Wulfnoth."
The Dane grasped his hand with a crushing grip, nearly making the shepherd grimace. But Godwine prided himself on never showing pain.
"Well, Godwine son of Wulfnoth. As I said, I have been trying to find my way out of these woods since yesterday eve. I am quite turned around. I will make it worth your while if you would show me how to get back to my ships, which lie in the Severn River."
Disturbed, Godwine turned his back to the man, sending his dogs after the sheep. "Do you come from the battle at Sherstone?" he asked finally.
His companion raised his eyebrows in surprise, but said nothing.
"I suppose you got lost chasing Saxons from the battle-field," Godwine added bitterly.
This one was no laggard; Ulf decided to be honest with him. "If you want to know the truth," he said, trying to look as sincere as possible, "I am not sure who won that battle. Your countrymen are fierce fighters, when inspired by your Edmund Ironside ..."
"Our King," the shepherd said, his tone demanding respect.
"I am not one to argue that point," Ulf demurred. "Come, while you show me the way, I will tell you about it ..."
Godwine did not move. "You must be mad, asking help from a Saxon."
The Dane hesitated, losing some of his assurance. The young man looked hard at him with sharp brown eyes, and his perfectly straight teeth were clenched. His arms were crossed, exposing sinewy muscles. Then, suddenly inspired, Ulf pulled a gold ring from his finger, holding it out. "Here, lad. It is yours for the asking."
Relaxing, Godwine took the ring. It was beautifully worked, intricately wound with curling serpents. Seeing that the ring was of great value, Godwine stopped to think of the powerful position this man might hold with the Danes. Perhaps he was an important chieftain, commander of many men. One could go far in his favor.
And what was Godwine's alternative? Although his father was Thegn of Sussex, his reputation had been tainted several years ago by an accusation that destroyed his command of the King's fleet. Wulfnoth was disgraced — wrongfully he said, mouthing the name Eadric Streona as the author of all his woes. But it made no difference. Perhaps this was his one opportunity to turn things around.
All these thoughts went through Godwine's head in seconds, while he looked from the ring to the waiting Dane. Then, nodding, he gave the band back to Ulf.
"No. I will not take your ring. But I will try to bring you back to your ships, and you can reward me however you see fit."
Turning, he started to move his herd, motioning for his companion to follow. "But the way is long and difficult," he said, whistling to the dogs.
"And the woods are full of Saxons, who would do great harm to you, and to me as your guide. We must return to my house and await the darkness so we can travel in secrecy."
Ulf followed willingly, trusting the good sense and decision of his guide. Not that he had a lot of choices.
Godwine did not live far away; he led the Dane to a modest thatched-roof house, perched on a hill above a considerable barnyard. The youth herded the sheep back into their pen, and motioned for Ulf accompany him to the house.
An older man was standing at the door, whose smoldering face resembled Godwine's too much to doubt his identity. One glance at his son's companion was enough, however, to change his expression from irritability to curiosity. He turned inside without a word, pulling a chair from under the table as he passed, and nodding at his wife to go into the other room.
Ulf didn't seem to notice any discomfort on the part of his host. He pulled out the chair from the head of the table, graciously thanked Wulfnoth for a large mug of ale, and contented himself with the company of the sheep-dogs, while Godwine followed his father outside.
Wulfnoth was a reasonable man. "I did not expect to see you until nightfall," was all he said.
Godwine turned a look toward the house. "I met this man in the forest. He needs a guide back to his ships."
The older man stroked his chin, his sharp eyes narrowing. "An enemy, all alone and at your mercy. And you decided to help him."
Stumped for a moment, Godwine's smile came to his rescue. "What an opportunity, father. He has the look of a leader. With luck, maybe he will take me into his service."
Wulfnoth sighed. Godwine was his son in more ways than one. Unbeknownst to Godwine, he, too, briefly served the Danes when it served his purpose. But that was many years ago ... actually, not that many years. Nonetheless, in this time of change, the lad had learned on his own how to take advantage of his opportunities.
Even so, it was unusual to welcome a Dane into his house.
"I had great plans for you ... but I did not quite expect it to turn out this way." He put an arm around his son's shoulders. "You know what this means. You must go with him now. There is no turning back. If anyone were to discover that you aided a Dane ..."
"I know. But father, they conquered this country once. It will not take much for them to conquer it again. And then, I will be on the right side."
Wulfnoth smiled sadly at his son. "Is it the right side because it's the winning side?"
But Godwine was already pulling away from him, anxious to join his new friend. "Father, I have seen what it means to lose. When you are defeated, it does not matter what is right or wrong."
Confounded, Wulfnoth let him go, turning aside to check on the animals. He needed a moment to recover himself. Was Godwine right? He didn't like being on the wrong side of the law, no matter how justified his actions were. And with that cursed Eadric Streona turning up at every opportunity, he had no way to improve his situation.
Filling the water trough, Wulfnoth decided to follow his son's lead. What else could he do? If he were to destroy Godwine's chances now, he might only make matters worse.
And Godwine was right: the Danes were very likely to take over the country again. It was a mere three years ago — in 1013 — that Swegn Forkbeard conquered all of England. Only Swegn's untimely death a few months later gave the Saxons the opportunity to overturn the Danish advantage. They recalled Aethelred to the throne, even though he was the one who had abandoned England in the first place
Yes, it was easy to blame their troubles on old Aethelred, who some called un-read — no counsel — because of his habit of making all the wrong decisions. His policy of paying tribute money to the Danes was utterly self-defeating. They would leave, loaded with English silver, then come back the next year for more.
When Aethelred finally died, only a few months ago, his son Edmund Ironside was left with a kingdom little larger than London. His resources were severely limited; there was no money in the treasury after the shambles of his father's reign.
And now he had to deal with a new invasion of Danes, led by Swegn's son, the fierce Canute. It was a wonder that Edmund withstood the Danes at all. But he kept coming back, somehow finding a new army, somehow finding the energy to attack this Canute, whose very name made a Saxon tremble.
There was no doubt that Canute had a claim to the throne, as far as it went. His father had been King of England; the Danish half of England had already elected him king before the Saxon half recalled Aethelred. The Saxons had hoped that on Aethelred's return Canute would then go away and leave them alone. After all, he had Denmark to keep him occupied.
Foolish hope indeed, as the Saxons learned.
For in taking this step, they didn't reckon on Canute's determination. He went away all right, so furious that he mutilated his father's 200 hostages, cutting off their hands, ears, and noses. But he left only to gain reinforcements from his native Denmark, and re-invade England with a vengeance.
Wulfnoth shivered, hanging his bucket on a nail. This was not the kind of man one looked forward to calling King. And his son Godwine had chosen to serve him.
"I tell you, Godwine," Ulf was saying, as Wulfnoth entered the house. "Sherstone was one of the damnedest battles I ever fought." He turned around, nodding a greeting. "Fine ale you have, I will say. Could you spare another mug full?"
Wulfnoth went to his cask, filling a pitcher. Then he told his wife Godgifu to make enough food for four.
Waiting until his mug was refilled, Ulf continued, as Wulfnoth joined them. "For two days we fought, shedding the blood of many good men. The ravens had no lack of food, I tell you. My Lord Canute had the men of Wiltshire and Somerset on his side ..." Wulfnoth nodded; he wasn't the only Wiltshire man to have served the Danes.
"The first day, there was no telling who had the upper hand," the other continued, after taking a deep draught, "but in the forenoon of the second day, your Edmund gathered a great deal of strength, and forced his way right up to Canute. Amazing man," he added, wiping his mouth, "the kind of warrior about whom legends are made."
Wulfnoth nodded, pouring more ale. Despite himself, he was beginning to like this Ulf. It was always a good man who appreciated his enemy's qualities.
"And Canute?" asked Godwine.
"Ah, lad, sometimes I think he leads a charmed life. He was mounted, and Edmund's blow was so fierce, that it cleaved his shield in two, and went right through his horse's neck. I know. I was there. If my boys had not been so quick to rush forward, Canute might be feasting in Valhalla right now."
Godwine shot his father a knowing look.
"As it was," Ulf went on, "your Edmund killed many of my men, though they succeeded in pushing him back. But I could see that more reinforcements were coming to his aid. Things might have gone badly for us, but ..."
He turned a clear eye on the boy, unaffected by alcohol. "It was Eadric Streona who turned the battle."
Wulfnoth dropped the jug and it fell over on the table; luckily it was almost empty. Godwine jumped up and pulled off his shirt, sopping up the remaining ale while pretending not to notice his father's reaction. "Whose side was he fighting on this time?" he asked bitterly.
"Ah, I see that you know what I am talking about. I tell you, Godwine, there never lived a fouler creature in the guise of a man. He has done your country more harm than all the Northmen put together."
The Dane leaned forward. "He fought for Canute. At just that moment in the battle, Eadric cut off the head of some man, whose face resembled Edmund's and held it up to the English, shouting, 'Fly, ye men of Dorset and Devon! Fly, and save yourselves. Here is your Edmund's head.'"
Godwine and his father stared at each other. This was news, indeed.
"Yes, it was mad for your countrymen to heed him, knowing that he fought on the other side. But men do not reason well when their blood is flowing from their veins, and at any moment death may come to claim them. The Saxons took one look at that gory head, and all the fight went out of them. They simply panicked, lad, and wanted to run away as fast as possible."
Even Ulf seemed saddened. "Well, your Edmund had his head about him yet, and he tore his helmet off and shouted at his men to look, he was alive, it was all a trick. Seeing the dastard Eadric, he took aim with a spear and nearly pierced the traitor through. But Eadric was quick, and the spear missed, running through two men who were next to him.
"Too bad for you that the spear missed its mark. We would all be better off without that man. Although Canute cannot do without his treachery, he despises the sight of him."
He paused for a satisfied belch and tried to refill his mug, shrugging his shoulders when he found the jug empty.
"As I was saying, Edmund did his best to rally his men, but it was too late. They were fleeing as fast as they could, throwing their weapons on the ground and scattering in every direction. I and my men pursued a portion of them into the forest, but I became separated from the rest, and spent the night searching for a way back. But I fear I must have gotten more and more lost. That is when I met you, Godwine ... a most fortunate accident."
That said, Ulf paused while Godwine's mother placed some food in front of him. He grabbed a chicken leg and took a big bite. Ulf hadn't eaten for some time.
His listeners were silent, but only for a few moments. Shaking off his distress at the plight of his fellow Saxons, Godwine joined him. He had made his decision; there was no turning back.
After the sun had gone down, Ulf and his new young friend made ready to leave. While Godwine was busy saddling two of Wulfnoth's best horses, his father took the Dane aside with a heavy face.
"We place into your trust our only son. I am sure you understand that he can no longer stay here. If any of our neighbors discover that he has aided you ..." Wulfnoth seemed to falter, but he recovered himself. "Let us say, his safety would be in doubt. If you have any influence with Canute, perhaps you can place him into the royal household."
Ulf looked at his host with sympathy. "Wulfnoth, you have no need to worry. I give you my word. Your boy shows great promise ... I see many noble qualities in his bearing. Besides ..." His face broke into a wide grin. "I did not tell you before, but I am a Jarl, and wield much influence among my people."
Wulfnoth stepped back a pace, and looked at his wife. A Jarl, same as an Earl in England. He had dared not hope for so much.
"And," added Ulf, "I married Canute's sister." He was about to say more when Godwine came up, leading the horses. The Dane immediately mounted, moving out of earshot.
Left alone with his parents, Godwine suddenly felt uncomfortable. Beneath all his bravado, he was still an inexperienced eighteen year-old who had never left home before.
His mother, ordered to stay in the back of the house, did not know what was happening, aside from the indications that her son was leaving. Shaking off her husband's restraining hand, she threw herself into Godwine's arms, crying and begging him to stay.
Excerpted from Godwine Kingmaker by Mercedes Rochelle. Copyright © 2014 Mercedes Rochelle. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A good portion of my ancestry is found in the United Kingdom. The Magna Carta came out of England. The history of England and the UK is pretty important to me as a citizen of the US of A. I approached this book with high hopes of a relevant and exciting story. I am not in the least bit disappointed! The writing is quite good. Mercedes’ scene setting is quite nice, I felt like I was right beside Godwine every step of the way. There were so many crucial events in his life as detailed in this exciting historical fiction. There is dialogue and action aplenty! The complex characters stayed quite true to their roots in so many of the instances. The court intrigues in and out of the castles, the battles on land and sea. The brutal warfare, spies galore, and strategizing all contributed so much to a thrilling piece of literature. Mercedes’ research complements her fiction, so well. I have no doubt the moves by major characters are very accurate. I give Godwine Kingmaker a score of 4.7 stars, it would have been higher except for the handful of spelling errors and missing words I found.