Having fled from Constantinople, Raef Corbanson and his companionsLief the Icelander, and Laissa, the young girl who they rescued from Constantinopleare cast up on shore in Normandy. Their goal is to return to Raef’s home in the Viking town of Jorvik in England. Raef is back in his home territory, and his old friend and shipmate Sweyn Forkbeard is now King of Denmarkand soon to overthrow King Ethelred II of England. Raef’s connections throw him into the middle of the struggle between Sweyn, Ethelred, and Ethelred’s son Edward. Raef becomes foster father of Sweyn’s son Knut…who will become known as King Canute when he in turn takes the throne of England.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||8.70(w) x 5.84(h) x 1.37(d)|
About the Author
CECELIA HOLLAND is one of the most respected historical novelists in the world. She is the author of more than thirty novels. Her earliest books, from The Firedrake to Great Maria, were New York Times bestsellers. She ceased writing for many years to raise her three daughters, and then began a come-back career with Forge, with the novel Jeruselem. Her most recent novel was The High City. Holland lives in Northern California.
Read an Excerpt
Kings of the North
By Cecelia Holland
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Cecelia Holland
All rights reserved.
The two men were tending to the horses, Raef drawing up water from the well, Leif stooping to run his hand along the black mare's foreleg. Neither of them was paying any attention to Laissa, and she slipped away from them into the market.
The wide village common boomed with people, haggling with the fishmongers and piemen, calling wares, arguing and yelling and laughing — crowds of children and animals. A pig had gotten loose, and two boys were whooping after it in and out of the packed shoppers. On the far side of the common, a stone church stood, and along its front porch a line of women sat with baskets of bread for sale.
She went that way. She had to find her mother; as if some blood memory warmed in her she knew she was near. For over a year now she had been hearing French spoken but never before with this accent, and this accent rang in her ears like silver bells. She had heard these voices before, a long time ago. Her heart was pounding. She was close, close, after all the years of searching she was very close.
She spoke French badly, but she had memorized the words she needed and knew from experience to ask women. She went toward the church and the women with their bread, waited until a girl only a little older than she caught her eye, and smiled.
The girl smiled back. Laissa sank down beside her. "Please. Maybe you can help me?"
The girl gave her a puzzled look. "I must have money for my bread."
"No, I am not begging. I want — I look for my family, my home. I think I am from here, when a little child, very little. Somehow I am — was lost. I was found alone in Constantinople, many years ago."
"Constantinople!" the girl gasped, cast a look around her at the other women, who were turning to listen. "How could this be? That's the far side of the world. Why do you think you are from here?" Her gaze searched Laissa's face. "But yes, I see it. You are like us, your hair, your eyes. You look Norman."
Laissa gripped her hands together. It was all she could do to keep from throwing her arms around the other girl. "I am. I recognize the way you speak. He called me ma p'te chérie —"
"Ma chérie," the girl repeated. All the other women were crowding around her now. Laissa's head reeled. When the girl spoke, for the first time she heard a woman's voice in her memory.
One of the other women murmured, "What a sad story this is! And you've come all this way alone?"
She slipped over that. She did not want to explain about Raef and Leif. She said, "Do you know of anyone — around the time your King Hugh is crowned —." She had practiced this much; she knew what would fix the time for them. "Anyone who went eastward, on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, maybe."
They bloomed with sympathy; they gathered her in, womanly, motherlike. Someone pressed a piece of bread into her hand. "Poor thing!" Their gazes on her were lively with curiosity. "Poor girl! No mother?"
"Constantinople!" said an old woman. "The city of gold! Why did she ever leave?"
"What is your name?" someone said.
"She's not that old," said another. "King Hugh was long ago."
"I was very young. My name is Laissa."
The girl she had spoken to first was shaking her head, her brow furrowed, her eyes soft with feeling. "But this is so sad. You remember nothing?"
"I remember some words," Laissa said. "Ma petite. Ma chérie. Sacre cur. Rawn."
The others sighed. "Laissa. How strange. That's not French, surely. Would that we could help you."
"Rawn," said a man's voice, behind her. "That could be Rouen."
At that a quiver went down her back; she wheeled toward him. "Rouen. Rouen." She strained to make it sound familiar.
He smiled at her, a fair young man with red cheeks. He said, "They keep records in the church. Let's go find the priest. Maybe we could find something there."
"Oh," she said, almost breathless. "Would you help me?"
"Yes, of course. Come with me."
He started off toward the church, and she followed. The women turned at once to one another, their voices rising, excited at new gossip. The young man led her down a lane beside the church, away from the market. The lane turned, following the church wall, a graveyard on the other side.
Over her head, a hawk screamed, and she looked up, startled. It was Raef's hawk. She seldom followed them into towns. Laissa's hands prickled up with warning, but she thrust that away. She was finding her mother. The young man ahead of her led her on. Records, names and places, written in the church, at last something solid. He turned another corner, so they were behind the church, and wheeled and grabbed her arm.
"Now," he said, "be good to me, and then I will help you."
She went stiff with fear. His high-colored face had changed, not smiling now, not kind, and she wrenched at his grip. "No —"
He wrapped his free arm around her and clapped his hand over her mouth. "Do as I say. If you fight I'll tell them you came lewdly to me. They'll have no mercy on you for that."
She thrashed in his grasp; he shoved her against the wall, trying to hold her and at the same time get her skirts up, and then from the sky the hawk stooped at him.
He screamed. In a wild flapping of wings the hawk thrust her talons at his face, and he let go of Laissa to strike at the bird. Laissa turned and ran. At the corner of the church she glanced back and saw the hawk beating her wings, climbing up and away, and the young man swaying, dazed, his red cheeks streaming blood.
He lurched after Laissa, screaming. "Liar — Stop her — she's a whore — she's a witch! She did this to me —"
"No," she cried, but she ran down the lane toward the market. Before she reached it Raef burst into the narrow way toward her, his face wild, and she flung herself into his arms.
"I didn't —"
The young man was still coming after her. "She attacked me —" His voice high, panting — "when I took her to the church — when she stepped on holy ground she turned into a demon —"
"No," she cried, again. Raef spun around and thrust her ahead of him toward the market.
"Don't talk. Run!"
"Pagans!" the bleeding man cried. "Stop them — they are devil spawn —"
Laissa burst out into the market, past the women selling bread, their heads all swiveling at once toward her, openmouthed. Around the market everybody was looking toward her. After her came the shriek of the bloody man.
"Get them! Stone them! For Jesus's sake, fight the evil!"
Leif surged up before her, mounted on the bay horse, leading the mare by the bridle. Half a step behind her, Raef got her arm and boosted her onto the black mare's saddle. "Go!" A stone caromed off the horse's flank, and it bolted.
Laissa almost fell off. She dug her fingers into the mane, her feet kicking frantically for the stirrups. Leif had her reins. He led her at a gallop across the crowded market. People scattered out of their way, but now the cry came from all sides.
"Pagans! Stone them —"
She clutched the mane, her breath sobbing through her teeth, and Leif led her at a dead gallop out of the village.
* * *
The road led them northwest, and, only a few miles later, they reached the edge of the sea.
Leif wrestled the horses to a stop at the lip of a little grassy bluff. The pale sandy beach swept away down to the water. The wind blew the tang of salt and seaweed straight into their faces. Raef jogged up beside them, panting from the hard run. When he saw the water he cried out and went down onto the beach and stood there, staring out to sea, the wind lashing his cloak and his long hair.
Leif twisted to look behind them. "They're still coming."
Laissa glanced over her shoulder. A crowd of men was struggling along the road half a mile behind them. Even from here she could see the blood on the face of the man leading them. Her heart hammered. He had turned the sin on her. To save himself he was damning her. Overhead the hawk screamed again.
Laissa looked up. In the sky the hawk was struggling to reach them, fighting the wind, circling higher and then tumbling down the wild air. On the beach, Raef turned and held up his arms, and the hawk fell toward him. As she fell she seemed to stretch, a long ragged russet robe of feathers.
Leif said, "We have to get out of here." But he dismounted and helped Laissa slide off her saddle so they stood in the lee of the bluff. He put his arm around her. Raef came toward them, his cloak folded around the hawk.
He came in among them and drew the cloak back. Where the hawk had been was an old, old woman in a russet gown, her eyes huge and fierce, her nose like a beak.
She was tired. There was blood on her mouth, and she leaned on Raef as if she could not stand without him. Laissa had seldom seen her in this, her real form; the girl lowered her eyes, shy, murmured "my lady," and bowed. Leif backed away and went down on one knee.
"Raef," he said, "they are still after us."
"They don't matter." Raef drew the cloak around the old woman again, holding her against him. "Gunnhild. England is just beyond this water. We are almost there."
Gunnhild laid her head against his chest and shut her eyes. "You must go on without me. I am done."
"Did he hurt you? I'll kill him."
"No, no," the old woman said. "This is my ending, long foretold. I dare go no closer to her. Already I can feel her power."
Raef said, "Who? Whose power? You only said we had to go to England."
"You must. Because of her, the other, the enemy. The thief of souls. Who has no name in this world or maybe anywhere else." Her eyes closed. "You know who she is. You were born in her house."
Raef let go an explosion of breath. "The Lady of Hedeby." Beside Laissa, Leif shaped his fingers into a sign against evil. Raef said, "But Corban destroyed her."
"No — Corban and his sister and his wife only bound her. This is my fault, son of my soul, curse me for it if you want, but you must make it right."
"I have never told you this — I feared your anger. I deserve it. You remember when I left you years ago in Denmark, after King Bluetooth died. I went to Hedeby, where she was bound, and I freed her. She must have a woman's body to inhabit, and I gave her mine. I thought to hitch her power to me, you see, and become great again thereby. But I miscalculated. She is much greater than I, and she would have consumed me. She may consume the world. This much I know — you can stop her. Somehow, if you can get to Jorvik, you can defeat her. And so I went and found you and brought you this far. But now I am done."
Laissa turned her head; even with the wind in her face she could hear now the cry of the mob. She turned back toward Gunnhild, who mattered more than that. Leif tightened his arm around her. "We've got to get moving, Raef."
Gunnhild said, "One last thing I can do. Howe me."
Raef leaned over her, sheltering her in the hollow of his arm, his cheek against her hair. "I won't let you die."
"Obey me, damn you, Raef!" Her face quivered. She seemed thinner, as if she were fading into the air. Laissa whimpered. Gunnhild said, "Remember what I taught you. Howe me here, now."
He lifted his head, his gaze on Laissa and Leif, standing there, watching him. The grief harrowed his face. He said, "Help me." He bent and lifted the old woman's body in his arms, carrying her like a child down onto the beach.
* * *
He wrapped Gunnhild in his cloak. He laid her on her back on the sand, with her head toward the north — where the North Star would shine when the night came — and drew the edge of the cloak over her face. He put his long knife at her right hand, because she was a warrior. He set the last of his money at her feet, a cup and a hunk of bread there also, to keep her on her journey. Finally, he cut off a piece of his hair and twisted it into a knot and put it inside the cloak above her breast.
Laissa and Leif brought the horses down after him and helped him gather stones, and quickly they laid them around her in lines that came to a point at each end, the bow and stern of the ship that would carry her home. As they finished this the fair young man and his mob panted up onto the edge of the sea bluff behind them.
Laissa and Leif shrank back away from the mob, almost to the water's edge. The sun was setting. Raef kneeled by the old woman's body. He could not bear to cover her. The young man was shouting at him.
Raef ignored this; with his hands he began to heap the sand onto Gunnhild's body.
The bleeding man cried, triumphant, "You see — I told you — see what they do? They are evil — stone them to death!"
Raef ignored him, piling the sand up into a mound over her. Down, at the edge of the shore, the sea growled up a white froth. He knew this was not the broad ocean, but it was close enough. If he stopped working even a moment, his grief and terror drove sharp into the center of him.
"God, strike them down. God, give us the honor of killing them in your name!"
Someone in the crowd had cobbled together a torch and lit it as the darkness fell, and the light flickered out over the beach, cast Raef's shadow down toward the sea. He put stones onto the howe. He set them down gently, to keep from hurting her. He wished he could cut out the stone of his heart and lay it there with her. He went down toward the beach, looking for more rocks.
The mob rushed forward toward the mound. The young man cried, "Get them — as we are Christians, we must stand for our faith — God will not forgive us if we let them go!"
Leif called, "Raef, someone else is coming."
From the mob came a pelting of stones. Raef faced them, angry, getting between them and the howe; a rock glanced off his shoulder. Several horsemen were galloping down the beach from the north. The mob swarmed toward Raef, the torch blazing overhead, the young man howling as he came in an ecstasy of righteousness.
"Heretic! Devil's spawn —"
"This is no matter of yours, or your god's," Raef said. "Why don't you leave us alone?"
"You admit it," the young man cried. The crowd gave up a huge yell.
"Kill them! Kill them all!" The young man lifted his two hands and formed a cross of his forefingers and thrust them toward Raef, and the torchlight cast the shape out over the howe.
The howe exploded. For an instant it shone bright as the sun. Raef felt the blast against his back and saw the white blaze glare across the beach; he felt the fire pierce him through and through. The young man tumbled backward, his arms over his face. The rest lurched away, screaming, and many ran and many fell down and all prayed. Down the beach, the oncoming horses skidded to a stop, neighing and rearing.
As the light faded, one rider forced his frenzied mount up toward Raef. His voice thundered with authority. "What is this? What just happened? Who are you?"
The dark closed down on them. Raef could make out the big man's form, the horse still jumping and snorting under him, its eyes white. "I am Raef Corbansson. Who are you?"
"My lord." The young man struggled up to his feet, his gaze on the first horseman. "Thank God you have come. These are heretics — they have made this heathen altar —" He staggered forward, his arm thrust toward Raef. "Take them!"
Raef folded his arms over his chest, looking up at the horseman. The rider glanced at the young man, took his foot from his stirrup, put it on the man's chest, and kicked him flat to the sand. To Raef, he said, "I am the Duke of Normandy, and nothing happens here save I permit it." He turned his gaze on the howe. "This is a grave. A Viking grave. Whom have you buried?"
"The Queen of Norway," Raef said. "I obeyed her wish, which is higher to me than anything of yours."
The horseman stared at him a moment, silent. The mob had mostly vanished. The young man crawled off into the grass on the bluff. Finally the Norman lord said, "I have never heard of you." He turned, waving toward his horsemen, clustered a good distance away down the beach. "Come with me while I think about this."
Raef glanced at Leif and Laissa, off by the surf. The mob was gone. Gunnhild had saved them again, one last time. He looked back at the man looming over him and shrugged one shoulder.
"Very well. There's nothing more to do here. I will go with you."
Excerpted from Kings of the North by Cecelia Holland. Copyright © 2010 Cecelia Holland. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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
Kings of the North was the best in Cecelia Holland's Viking novels. The character Ralf truly developed in this story ... became the hero the others before him failed to fully achieve. The historical events were fascinating and the mystical slant only added to the interesting storyline. Great reading.
After being away for several years, Raef Corbanson, accompanied by his traveling friends Leif the Icelander and Liassa, returns to England at a time when strife threatens the country. Whereas Raef just wants to go home to Jorvik, several men strive for the throne ever since Ethelred the Unready became the ruler. Raef's former shipmate Denmark King Sweyn Forkbeard wants the crown now precariously worn by Ethelred. The monarchs' respective sons Edmund and Knut also covet the throne. Raef tries his best to be a decent foster father to Knut and reconcile with his daughter, Gemma. However he hesitates to confront Lady Hedeby while also hoping to stay out of the monarchy free for all. The final tale of the Loosestrife dark ages thriller (see The High City) is a terrific Viking era historical. Partially because he can see the future that he believes cannot be changed, Raef remains submissively acceptant of his and others' fate. His realistic reaction to his paranormal skill leaves him relatively inert as the center of the story line reacting to those hyperactive rivals seeking the crown. Still fans of the Loosestrife epic will relish the fight for the throne in the early decades of the eleventh century. Harriet Klausner