“A splendid fusion of historical research and imagination.” —Adrienne McDonnell, author of The Doctor and the Diva
Readers first met Emma of Normandy in Patricia Bracewell’s gripping debut novel, Shadow on the Crown. Unwillingly thrust into marriage to England’s King Æthelred, Emma has given the king a son and heir, but theirs has never been a happy marriage. In The Price of Blood, Bracewell returns to 1006, when a beleaguered Æthelred—still haunted by his brother’s ghost—governs with an iron fist and a royal policy that embraces murder.
As tensions escalate and enmities solidify, Emma forges alliances to protect her young son from ambitious men—even from the man she loves. In the north there is treachery brewing, and when Viking armies ravage England, loyalties are shattered and no one is safe from the sword. Rich with intrigue, compelling personalities, and fascinating detail about a little-known period in history, The Price of Blood will captivate fans of both historical fiction and fantasy novels such as George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
About the Author
Heather Wilds has appeared in numerous plays on the London stage to great critical acclaim. She has also performed in award-winning films, appeared on TV and in commercials, and works as an audiobook narrator and voice actress.
Read an Excerpt
*Indicates a Fictional Character
Æthelred II, King of England
Emma, Queen of England
Children of the English king, in birth order:
Aldyth, niece of Ealdorman Ælfhelm
Elgiva, daughter of Ealdorman Ælfhelm
*Hilde, granddaughter of Ealdorman Ælfric
Robert, Wymarc’s son
Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury
Ælfhun, Bishop of London
Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, Archbishop of Jorvik
Ælfhelm, Ealdorman of Northumbria
Ufegeat, his son
Wulfheah, his son (Wulf)
*Alric, his retainer
Ælfric, Ealdorman of Hampshire
Godwine, Ealdorman of Lindsey
Leofwine, Ealdorman of Western Mercia
Eadric of Shrewsbury
Godwin, Wulfnoth’s son
Morcar of the Five Boroughs
Siferth of the Five Boroughs
Thurbrand of Holderness
Ulfkytel of East Anglia
Uhtred of Northumberland
Wulfnoth of Sussex
Duke Richard II, Emma’s brother
Dowager Duchess Gunnora, Emma’s mother
Robert, Archbishop of Rouen, Emma’s brother
Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark
Harald, his son
Cnut, his son
Ætheling: literally, throne-worthy. All of the legitimate sons of the Anglo-Saxon kings were referred to as æthelings.
Ague: any sickness with a high fever
Breecs: Anglo-Saxon term for trousers
Burh: an Anglo-Saxon fort
Burn: a small stream
Ceap: the market street
Cemes: a long linen undergarment for men
Ceorl: a freeman, neither noble nor slave; peasant
Chasuble: an ecclesiastical vestment, a sleeveless mantle covering body and shoulders, often elaborately embroidered, worn over a long, white tunic
Cyrtel: a woman’s gown
Danelaw: an area of England that roughly comprises Yorkshire, East Anglia, and central and eastern Mercia, where successive waves of Scandinavians settled throughout the ninth and tenth centuries
Ealdorman: a high-ranking noble appointed by the king to govern a province in the king’s name. He led troops, levied taxes, and administered justice. It was a political position usually conferred upon members of powerful families.
Eyas: a falcon chick, taken from the nest for training
Five Boroughs: a region in Mercia made up of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln, it exercised significant political influence in late Anglo-Saxon England
: literally flesh street; outdoor meat market
Fyrd: an armed force that was raised at the command of the king or an ealdorman, usually in response to a Viking threat
Gafol: the tribute paid to an enemy army to purchase peace
Garth: a small piece of enclosed ground used as a yard, garden, or paddock
Geld: a tax levied by the king, who used the money to pay the tribute extorted by Viking raiders
Gerningakona: Old Norse term for a woman who practices magic
Godwebbe: precious cloth, frequently purple, normally of silk; probably shot-silk taffeta
Haga: a fenced enclosure; a dwelling in town
Handfasting: a marriage or betrothal; a sign of a committed relationship with no religious ceremony or exchange of property
Headrail: a veil, often worn with a circlet or band, kept in place with pins
Hearth troops: warriors who made up the household guard of royals and great lords
Hibernia: Latin name for Ireland
Hide: an Anglo-Saxon land reckoning for the purpose of assessing taxes
Hird: the army of the Northmen; the enemies of the English
Hythe: Old English term for a wharf or pier
Leech: a physician
Lindsey: the district of eastern England between the River Witham and the Humber, in the northern part of Lincolnshire
Mantling: in falconry, the action of a bird spreading its wings and arching over its prey to hide it
Mere: a lake or pond
Murrain: a disease of domestic animals
Nithing: a pejorative term in Norse and Old English meaning “abject wretch”
Reeve: a man with administrative responsibilities utilized by royals, bishops, and nobles to oversee towns, villages, and large estates
Rood: the cross on which Christ was crucified
Sámi: a culture indigenous to Norway, believed to have prophetic skills
Scop: storyteller; harper
Screens passage: a vestibule just inside the entrance to a great hall or similar chamber, created by movable screens that blocked the wind from gusting into the hall when the doors were opened
Scyrte: a short garment worn by men; shirt
Seel: to sew shut the eyes of a falcon for training
Sennight: a week
Skald: poet or storyteller
Smoc: a shirt or undergarment
Thegn: literally one who serves another; a title that marks a personal relationship; the leading ones served the king himself; a member of the highest rank in Anglo-Saxon society; a landholder with specified obligations to his lord
Thrall: a slave
Wain: a wagon or cart
Wergild: literally man payment; the value set on a person’s life
Witan: wise men; the king’s council
Wyrd: fate or destiny
Shrove Tuesday, March 1006
Æthelred knelt, his head clutched in his hands, bowed beneath the weight of his crown and his sins. Somewhere above, the vesper bells rang to mark the call to evening prayer, and at the very moment of their tolling he felt his limbs tremble, convulsed by a force beyond his control.
The familiar, hated lethargy settled over him, and though he strove to keep his head down and his eyes shut, a will far stronger than his own pulled his gaze upward. The air before him thickened and turned as black and rippling as the windswept surface of a mere. Pain gnawed at his chest, and he shivered with cold and apprehension as the world around him vanished. Sounds, too, faded to nothing and he knew only the cold, the pain, and the flickering darkness before him that stretched and grew into the shape of a man.
Or what had been a man once. Wounds gaped like a dozen mouths at throat and breast, gore streaked the shredded garments crimson, and the menacing face wore Death’s gruesome pallor. His murdered brother’s shade drew toward him, an exhalation from the gates of heaven or the mouth of hell—he could not say which. Not a word passed its lips, but he sensed a malevolence that flowed from the dead to the living, and he shrank back in fear and loathing.
Yet he could not look away. For long moments the vision held him in thrall until, as it began to fade, he became aware of another figure—of a shadow behind the shadow. Dark, indistinct, shrouded in gloom, it hovered briefly in the thickened air and then, like the other, it was gone.
Released from the spell, he could hear once again the pealing of the vesper bells and the murmur of voices at prayer, could smell the honeyed scent of candles and, beneath it, the rank stench of his own sweat. The golden head dropped once more into cupped hands, but now it was heavy with fear and tormented by a terrible foreboding.
A.D. 1006 This year Ælfheah was consecrated Archbishop; Wulfheah and Ufegeat were deprived of sight; Ealdorman Ælfhelm was slain . . .
—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Near Calne, Wiltshire
Queen Emma checked her white mare as it crested a hill above the vast royal estate where the king had settled for the Lenten season. Behind her a company of thirty men, women, and children, all of them heavily cloaked against a biting wind, rested their mounts after the long climb. In front of her, in the middle distance below the hill, the slate roof and high, gilded gables of the king’s great hall dwarfed the buildings and palisade that encircled it. The hall marked their journey’s end, and Emma looked on it with relief, for it was late in the day and her people were weary.
As she studied the road ahead, a single shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds massed in folds across the sky to slant a golden light upon the fields below. The furrowed land shimmered under a thin film of green—new shoots that promised a good harvest in the months to come, if only God would be merciful.
But God, Emma thought, seemed to have turned His face against England. For two years now, promising springs had been followed by rain-plagued summers so that food and fodder were scarce. This past winter, Famine and Death had stalked the land, and if the coming season’s yield was not bountiful, yet more of the poorest in the realm would die.
She had done what she could, distributing alms to those she could reach and adding her voice to the faithful’s desperate pleas for God’s mercy. Now, as the golden light lingered on the green vale below, she prayed that her latest assault on heaven—the pilgrimage she had made to the resting places of England’s most beloved saints—might at last have secured God’s blessings on Æthelred’s realm.
She glanced around, looking past the horse litter that bore her son and his wet nurse to find her three young stepdaughters. Wulfhilde, just eight winters old, was asleep in the arms of the servant who rode with her. Ælfa sat upon her mount slumped within the folds of her mantle. Edyth, the eldest at twelve, stared dully toward the manor hall, her face drawn and pale beneath her fur-lined hood.
Emma chided herself for pushing them so hard, for they had been on the road since daybreak. She turned in her saddle to lead the group forward, but as she did so the wind made a sudden shift to strike her full in the face. Her mount sidled nervously, and as she struggled to control the mare another fierce gust pushed at her like a massive hand that would urge her away.
She felt a curious sense of unease, a pricking at the back of her neck, and she squinted against the wind, searching for the source of her disquiet. On the mast atop the manor’s bell tower, the dragon banner of Wessex heralded the king’s presence within. He would be there to welcome her—although not with anything resembling love or even affection, for he had none of either to give. Æthelred was more king than man—as ruthless and cold as a bird of prey. Sometimes she wondered if he had ever loved anyone—even himself.
She did not relish the coming reunion with her lord, but that alone did not explain her sudden sense of foreboding.
As she hesitated, her son began to wail, his piercing cry an urgent demand that she could not ignore. She shook off her disquiet, for surely it must be her own weariness that assailed her. She nodded to her armed hearth troops to take the lead, and then followed them down the hill.
When she rode through the manor gates she saw a knot of retainers making for the kitchens behind the great hall, one of them carrying the standard of the ætheling Edmund. She puzzled over his presence here while a groom helped her dismount. Edmund had accompanied his elder brothers Athelstan and Ecbert to London in February, charged with the task of repairing the city’s fortifications and the great bridge that straddled the Thames. All three of them were to remain there until they joined the court at Cookham for the Easter feast. What, then, was Edmund doing here today?
The anxiety that had vexed her on the hill returned, but she had duties to perform before she could satisfy her curiosity. She led her stepdaughters and attendants into her quarters, where she found a fire blazing in the central hearth, the lime-washed walls hung with embroidered linens, and her great, curtained bed standing ready at the far end of the room. Three servants were setting up beds for the king’s daughters, and a fourth stepped forward to take Emma’s hooded mantle and muddy boots.
She slipped out of the cloak, then looked about the chamber for the women of her household who had been sent ahead and had, she guessed, supervised all these preparations.
“Where are Margot and Wymarc?” she asked, still unnerved by that moment of unease on the heights above the manor.
Before anyone could respond, Wymarc entered the chamber with a quick step, and Emma, relieved, drew her into an embrace. They had been parted for only a week, yet it seemed far longer. Wymarc was a bright, comforting presence in her household—and had been since the day they left Normandy together for England. Four years ago that was—four years since Emma stood at the door of Canterbury Cathedral as the peace-weaving bride of the English king, with Wymarc looking on from only a half step away.
She had missed Wymarc this past week.
“Margot has taken Robert down to the millpool,” Wymarc said, “to look for ducklings.” She shook her head. “It is a marvel that a woman of her years can keep pace with my young son, yet she does it.”
Emma smiled, imagining Margot, as small and cheerful as a wren, walking hand in hand with a child not quite two winters old. Children, though, had ever been the center of Margot’s world. Healer and midwife, she had been Emma’s guide since birth—and the nearest thing to a mother that Emma had in England.
She glanced at Wulfa and Ælfa, who were already shedding their mud-spattered cyrtels for fresh garments.
“The girls will be glad to see Margot,” she said. “Ælfa took a fall this morning and wants a salve for the cut on her knee. And Edyth”—she nodded toward one of the beds where Æthelred’s eldest daughter was curled up tightly, knees to chest—“yesterday she bled for the first time and she’s feeling wretched, of course, and swears that she’s ill. She’ll listen to no words of reassurance from me, but I expect that Margot can persuade her that she’s not about to die.”
At this the expression in Wymarc’s usually merry brown eyes grew guarded, and the warning glance she cast toward the girls told Emma that something was wrong but that an explanation would have to wait until they could speak privately.
She changed quickly into clean stockings, linen shift, and a dark gray woolen cyrtel, then she drew Wymarc aside.
“What is amiss?” she asked, taking the silken headrail that Wymarc was holding out to her. “Is it something to do with Edmund? I saw his bannermen as I came into the yard.”
“I pray it is not true,” Wymarc whispered, “but there is a rumor that one of the æthelings has died in London.” She clutched Emma’s hand. “Emma, I do not know who it is.”
The headrail slipped, forgotten, from Emma’s fingers. She stared at Wymarc and had to will herself to breathe. Edmund had been with Athelstan and Ecbert in London. Was it possible that one of them was dead?
Holy Mary, she prayed, let it not be Athelstan.
She had been on God’s earth for nineteen summers, had been wife and queen for four of them, and had born a babe who was heir to England’s crown. In all that time she had loved but one man and, God forgive her, that man was not her royal husband but his eldest son.
Clasping her hands together to stop their trembling, she pressed them against her mouth and shut her eyes.
“God have mercy,” she whispered, then looked to Wymarc. “I must go to the king.”
Her thoughts flew back to that moment on the hill above the manor and the foreboding that had shaken her. Had she sensed some trouble in the air then—a portent of loss greater than she could bear to imagine?
Sweet Virgin, she prayed again, let it not be Athelstan.
She took long, slow breaths and walked with a measured step to disguise the fear that clutched at her heart, to try not to think of how wretched the world would be if Athelstan were not in it.
Nodding to the guards at the entrance to the great hall, she slipped inside. Torches flamed in their sockets along the walls and a fire roared in the central pit, but the vast chamber, which should have been busy with preparations for the evening meal, was all but empty. Æthelred sat on the dais in his great chair with Edmund kneeling before him. The king was bent forward, his silver-streaked, tawny hair contrasting with his son’s darker, disheveled locks. The king’s steward, Hubert, stood to one side, dictating something to a scribe; a gaggle of servants hovered nearby looking frightened.
Filled with dread, Emma walked silently and swiftly to the dais and sank into the chair placed beside the king’s. Æthelred did not even mark her entrance, so absorbed was he in what Edmund was saying. Edmund’s face, she saw with despair, was wet with tears, and she forced herself to listen to him in silence, swallowing the urgent query that was on her lips.
“It came on suddenly, and he was in agony from the start,” he said in a voice laced with grief. “The leeches gave him a purgative, but that only seemed to make him worse. They bled him, to try to release the evil humors, but even I could see that they thought it was futile. A corruption had taken hold inside, they said, and only a miracle would spare him. They tried to dose him with poppy juice to ease his pain, but what little he swallowed he spewed back again. It was as if some devil would not allow him any succor, would not even let him sleep. His suffering was terrible, my lord. He did not deserve such torment.”
Edmund’s voice broke, but he took a breath, mastered his grief, and went on.
“On the second morning the bishop arrived with the relics of Saint Erkenwald and a clutch of priests. They prayed for a miracle, but by midday I was begging God to put an end to his agony.” He drew a heavy breath. “That prayer, at least, was answered. I am come to you straight from Ecbert’s deathbed, my lord. Athelstan insisted that you hear it from one of us and no other.”
Emma dropped her head into her hands, unable to keep back her tears. She mourned for Ecbert, and she grieved for Athelstan, who had lost his dearest companion. Yet even as she wept for pity, she murmured a prayer of thanks. Athelstan was alive.
“Why do you weep, lady?” Edmund’s harsh voice flayed her. “Your own son thrives, does he not? And Ecbert was nothing to you.”
She looked into the grief-ravaged face of her stepson, unsurprised by his words. At seventeen he was a grown man, but even as a youth he had regarded her with resentment and suspicion.
“I am no monster, Edmund,” she said. “I grieve for Ecbert as I would for the death of any of my husband’s children.”
“Ecbert would not want your—”
“Edmund.” Æthelred’s voice silenced his son.
For once Emma was grateful for the rigid control that the king wielded over his children. She had no wish to wrangle with Edmund. Not today.
The king was gazing into the middle distance, his eyes unfocused and empty.
“On what day,” he asked, “and at what hour did Ecbert die?”
“Two days ago,” Edmund replied. “Shrove Tuesday, just before vespers.”
Æthelred closed his eyes, and the hand that he lifted to his brow trembled. Emma could only guess at what he was feeling. Anguish for the suffering of his son? Anger at a pitiless God? She wanted to comfort him, and she would have reached out to touch his arm, but his next words checked her.
“I beg you, lady, to leave us to our grief. Send my daughters to me. I would tell them of their brother’s death.”
It was as if he had struck her a physical blow—a terse reminder that she was an outsider, a foreign queen who could be beckoned or dismissed at the king’s whim, like a bit of carved wood on a game board.
Without another word, she left the hall.
Grieving and wounded, she returned to her apartments and, as the king had bid her, sent his daughters to him. Then she drew her son from his nurse’s lap. Edward nuzzled contentedly against her shoulder, happily fingering the thick, pale braid of her hair. As she paced restlessly about the room, finding comfort in her son’s warm, milky scent, Edmund’s words and the venomous look he had turned upon her played in her head like a bad dream.
His anger, she feared, was directed as much toward her son as toward her. She had watched it grow and fester for more than a year now—ever since Æthelred had named Edward heir to his throne. In disinheriting the sons born to him by his first wife, the king had pitted all her stepsons against her child. Brothers against brother; a host of Cains against her tiny Abel.
Athelstan, for her sake she suspected, kept his brothers’ resentment in check. But how long could he continue to do so?
Royal brothers had been murdered before this for the sake of a crown. Æthelred himself had been but ten summers old when his half brother, King Edward, had been slain. No one had been punished for that murder. Instead, certain men close to the newly crowned young Æthelred had prospered.
How many powerful men, she mused uneasily, had interests that would be ill served if her son should one day take the throne? How many of the elder æthelings’ supporters could be called on to dispose of a troublesome half brother for the benefit of the sons of Æthelred’s first wife?
The thought turned her limbs to liquid, and she had to sit down. She rested her cheek against Edward’s bright silken hair and held him close. He was her treasure, her whole reason for being. His life was in her hands, and Ecbert’s death was a reminder that even for a royal son, life was perilous.
“I promise you,” she whispered, “that I will protect you from all your enemies.” Then she thought of Athelstan, alone in London and grieving for his brother, and she added, “Even those whom I love.”
The next day dawned sunless, heavy with the threat of rain. As Æthelred performed the prescribed rituals of mourning for his dead son, his mind was filled with thoughts as black as the sullen skies—thoughts that sprang not from grief, but from rage.
Grief, he told himself, was a sentiment of little use to him. Better to howl than to weep. Better to channel his fury toward a pitiless God and the vengeful shade of a murdered king than to mourn for the innocent dead.
Both heaven and hell, he was certain, had cursed him—the bitter fruit of ancient sins. He had witnessed the murder of his brother, the king; had raised neither voice nor hand to prevent it; had taken a crown that should not have been his. For these wrongs his brother’s cruel shadow continued to torment him, despite all that he had done to lay the loathsome spirit to rest.
Ecbert’s death was yet another sign that Edward’s hand—or God’s—was raised against him. Shrines and churches, prayers and penance had not bought him peace. He was still dogged by misfortune.
Now he understood that the price of forgiveness was far too high. God and Edward demanded his kingdom and his crown, and that was a price he would not pay.
As he knelt within the cold heart of the royal chapel, he made a solemn vow. He would defy heaven; he would defy hell, too, and anything else living or dead that sought to break his grasp upon his throne. For he was of the Royal House of Cerdic. Never had his forebears relinquished their claim to kingship until the moment that each took his final breath, and neither would he.
If a king was not a king, then he was nothing.
By midafternoon the storm had dissipated, but when the household assembled for the day’s main meal Æthelred still seethed with a brooding rage that he directed toward the God who had turned against him. He took his place upon the dais and nodded brusquely to Abbot Ælfweard, seated at his right hand, to give the blessing. A commotion at the bottom of the hall, though, drew his attention to the screens passage. There, a tall figure stepped through the curtained doorway. Cloaked all in black and with the long white beard of an Old Testament prophet, Archbishop Wulfstan strode with measured step toward the high table.
Here, then, Æthelred thought, was God’s answer to his earlier vow of defiance. Like some carrion crow, Wulfstan—Bishop of Worcester, Archbishop of Jorvik—had come to croak God’s Word at him.
Like the rest of his household, he stood up as the archbishop advanced. But Wulfstan’s progress was pointedly slow, and he leaned heavily upon his crosier as he made his way to the dais, sketching crosses in the air over the bowed heads of the assembly.
The old man was weary, Æthelred thought, unusual for Wulfstan, who usually had the vigor of a rutting stallion. A vigor that he dedicated to his king’s service, he admitted grudgingly, as well as to God’s. What was it that had driven him so hard today? Was it Ecbert’s death, or did he bring news of some further calamity?
Emma, he saw, was already rounding the table to present the welcome cup before kneeling in front of the archbishop for his blessing. Wulfstan passed his crosier and then the cup to a waiting servant, took the queen’s hands in his, and bent his head close to hers to speak a private word. Æthelred watched, irritated. Wulfstan had always been Emma’s champion; indeed, most of England’s high clergy had been seduced by his pious queen.
Beside him Abbot Ælfweard, who knew his place well enough, scuttled off the dais to make way for his superior, and Æthelred knelt in his turn as the archbishop offered a prayer over his royal head. When the prelate had cleansed his hands and the prayer of thanksgiving had been said at last, the company sat down to eat.
After glancing with distaste at the Lenten fare of eel soup and bread that was set before him, Æthelred pushed the food away and turned to the archbishop. May as well hear what the man had come to say, he thought, and be done with it.
“Do you come to console me, Archbishop?” he demanded bitterly. “Do you bring words of comfort from the Almighty that will recompense me for the death of a son?”
Wulfstan, too, pushed aside his bowl.
“I bring no consolation, my lord, for I have none to give,” he said, and there was not even the merest hint of compassion in the archbishop’s cold gaze. “Thus says the Lord,” he went on, “your sons shall die and your daughters shall perish of famine. None shall be spared among them, unless you repent of the wickedness of your hearts.” His gray eyes glinted in the candlelight like chips of steel, fierce and bright. “I am come, my lord, because I am afraid—for this kingdom and its people.” He paused and then he added, “And I fear for its king.”
Fear of God’s wrath. Of course—it was Wulfstan’s favorite theme, the wickedness of men and the need for repentance. But God used men to flay those whom He would punish, and it was the men whom Æthelred feared, although he did not say it.
“Your kingdom is mired in sin, my lord,” Wulfstan’s cold, implacable voice went on, “and even innocents will suffer for it. The death of the ætheling and the famine that we have endured—these are signs from the Almighty. God’s punishment will be inflicted on us all, from the king to the lowliest slave, and no one will escape judgment. If we are not penitent, God will destroy us.”
Æthelred gritted his teeth. He had tried penitence, but over and over God had spurned his prayers and his offerings of recompense. His brother’s hideous wraith still walked the earth—how else if not by God’s will? Let others turn to the Lord for succor; he would not. Let Wulfstan batter heaven with his prayers—such was his episcopal duty. Mayhap God would pay heed to him.
He toyed with a bit of bread, listening with half an ear as Wulfstan gravely catalogued the sinful deeds of the men and women of Worcester. Adultery, murder, pagan rituals, and the miserliness of tight-fisted nobles ranked high among them, but Æthelred had no interest in the petty sins of Worcestershire folk.
“What of your northern see, Archbishop?” he asked when Wulfstan paused for breath. “What black sins, exactly, do the men of Northumbria have upon their souls?”
Wulfstan’s hard eyes—a zealot’s eyes in a grim face, he thought—fixed on his own.
“The Lord said to me, from the north will come an evil that will boil over on all who dwell in the land. The prophet Jeremiah gives you warning, my king, and you would do well to heed his words.”
Æthelred closed his eyes. Jesu, but the man maddened him. He spoke of prophecies and warnings, but what further calamity did they presage?
Scowling, he tossed his bread to the table.
“I could heed your prophet far better if you would make his message plain to me,” he growled. “What mischief is brewing in the north and who is behind it?”
Wulfstan steepled his hands and rested his chin thoughtfully upon his fingertips.
“The men of the north have little love for their king.” He shook his head. “They are wary even of their archbishop. It is true that unrest is brewing in Jorvik, but I cannot say who is behind it.”
Cannot? Æthelred wondered. Or will not?
“What of my ealdorman?” he asked. “How does he treat with the men of Northumbria and the Danelaw?” Ealdorman Ælfhelm’s commission was to bend the damned rigid northerners to the will of their king, but he had long suspected that the man’s activities in Northumbria had been far more self-serving. Get close enough and Ælfhelm’s actions stank more of scheming and guile than of vigorous efforts at persuasion.
Wulfstan’s thin lips seemed to grow thinner still. Whatever Ælfhelm was doing, the archbishop did not approve.
“I am told that he has the ear of the northern nobles,” Wulfstan said, “although what passes between them I do not know. Lord Ælfhelm does not confide in me.”
No. Ælfhelm was not the kind of man to confide in an archbishop. But Wulfstan clearly knew something about the ealdorman that he was reluctant to reveal. Sensing that there was more to come, he waited, and eventually Wulfstan spoke again.
“I urge you to speak with Lord Ælfhelm on these matters, my lord. I, too, will take counsel with him at the Easter court, for I have reason to believe that some men in the north consort with pagan believers and evildoers from foreign lands. They must be brought to heel through fear of God’s wrath and the punishments sanctioned by law.”
Æthelred grunted his agreement to Wulfstan’s advice, but his thoughts lingered on the foreign evildoers the archbishop spoke of. He would like to know more about them and their dealings with the men of Northumbria, and perhaps with Ælfhelm himself. He would get nothing else from Wulfstan, he knew. The archbishop had never been one for details.
As for his ealdorman, he had grave doubts about Ælfhelm’s ability to bring the men of the north to heel. Or perhaps it was willingness that was lacking. Although Ælfhelm was the most powerful and wealthy of England’s magnates, he wanted more power still, and he would use every means at his disposal to get it. That meant alliances with those who bore some malice toward the Church or the Crown, and there were certain to be many such men.
So what alliances was Ælfhelm forging? His elder son had been wed years ago to a girl from the Five Boroughs; the younger last spring to a widow with lands along the River Trent. Each marriage had extended the ealdorman’s influence northward, and now he had but one child left unwed—Elgiva, his beautiful witch of a daughter.
And witch she certainly was, he knew from experience. When he had first wearied of his Norman bride, Elgiva had kept him spellbound for many a month. Her father had been behind that, he was certain. And Ælfhelm was likely using Elgiva now to snare some powerful ally among the disgruntled lords of the north. To what purpose he could not say, but he could make a very good guess. The men north of the Humber had never liked bending the knee to southern kings. It would take little to push them into betraying the oaths they had made to the House of Cerdic.
Betrayal. That might very well be the evil that Wulfstan’s prophet saw boiling over the land.
He glanced down at the gathering before him, to where the queen’s women sat at a table just below the dais. Ælfhelm’s troublesome vixen of a daughter should have been among them, and when he could not find her he breathed a quiet curse. When Wulfstan had been drawn from the table by a cluster of priests, Æthelred turned to Emma.
“Where is the Lady Elgiva?” he asked.
Emma’s green eyes considered him with innocent surprise. “I presume she is still in Northampton, my lord. You gave her leave to attend the wedding of her cousin Aldyth to Lord Siferth of Mercia.”
Christ, he had forgotten. But that had been a month ago, when the court had been at Sutton and Ælfhelm’s estate but two days’ ride away. Since then the queen had gone on pilgrimage, and the court had moved here to Wiltshire.
“So she never joined you on pilgrimage?” he asked.
“No, my lord. I expected to find her here upon my return.”
He frowned. “I should have been told that she was still in Northampton.” Ælfhelm had had his she-whelp with him for a month. Christ alone knew what mischief they were up to. He glanced at Emma. “Wulfstan suspects that there is something amiss in the north. I’ll wager half my kingdom that Ælfhelm is at the bottom of it and that Elgiva may have a role to play in his schemes.” Jesu, it might indeed cost him half his kingdom.
Disgusted with himself, his queen, his archbishop—and with God more than all the rest—he stood up, calling for a light bearer to lead him to his chamber. He would send a messenger to Ælfhelm tonight commanding his entire family’s attendance at the Easter court. The ealdorman’s response would direct his next move.
As he stalked from the hall, he ignored the men and women of his household, for his gaze was turned inward as he considered all that the archbishop had said, and all that he had hinted. Wulfstan’s counsel may not have given him much insight into Ælfhelm’s mind, but he had other tools besides the archbishop—other eyes watching whatever events might be unfolding in the north. He would discover what treachery Ælfhelm and his offspring were plotting, and then he would find a way to stop it. He would strike, he vowed, before his enemies and their foreign-born allies could tear his kingdom away from him.
Aldeborne Manor, Northamptonshire
When Elgiva learned that a messenger had arrived bearing missives from the king to her ealdorman father, she did not wait for a summons to the hall to hear the news. Such a summons, she knew, might never come. Her father liked to flaunt his power by being niggardly with information.
So, with a servant girl at her back bearing a cup and a flagon of mead strong enough to loosen even a giant’s tongue, she entered the great hall, where her father had been meeting with men from his various estates. Reeves, grooms, armorers, huntsmen, and their underlings—perhaps a score of men all told—stood in groups about the chamber waiting for an interview with their lord.
Whenever her father was in residence the hall was peopled almost exclusively with such men, and he would not suffer her to stay among them for long. Since she had returned here from her cousin’s nuptials, he had kept her mewed up, out of the sight of these fellows in case someone should look at her with covetous glances.
In his zealous regard for her chastity her father seemed to have forgotten that once, hoping to gain greater influence over Æthelred, he had turned a blind eye while she had been the king’s leman for near a year. No doubt he had expected, as she had, that the king would set aside his Norman bride and wed her. But Emma and the bishops had persuaded the king that his queen could not be easily disposed of and, to Elgiva’s father’s fury and her frustration, the king’s ardor toward her had cooled and she had gained nothing from the dalliance but a few golden trinkets.
Since then Æthelred had shared his bed with an assortment of favorites whose kin were far less prominent than her own, while she was kept like a caged bird under the queen’s watchful eye. And now, even worse, she was spending her days and nights here, fettered by her father’s far too rigorous protection.
As she made her way through the crowded chamber she searched for her father and found him standing in a narrow beam of sunlight that spilled through one of the hall’s high, glazed windows. She tried to gauge his mood from the expression on his face, but it told her nothing. Like his temper, his countenance was ever cold, dangerous, stone-hard, and grim. He was a fearful man to look upon—his face seamed and roughhewn, as if it had been carved from rock that had been cracked and broken. His black hair, coarser than hers but just as thick and curly, was shot through with skeins of white, and the once-black beard was mottled with gray. He was not a gentle man, as likely to greet her with a cuff as with a kiss, although he would welcome the honey wine readily enough.
She took the brimming cup from the servant and, walking boldly forward, she offered it to him.
“Good day, my lord,” she said, casting a slantwise, inquisitive glance at the parchment in his hand that bore the king’s seal.
Her father took the cup, drank deeply, fixed her with a steady gaze, and said—nothing.
She waited, silently cursing him for this little show of power over her. He knew what she wanted, yet it amused him to make her wait upon his pleasure.
He drank again, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and waved the parchment at her.
“I suppose, daughter,” he said, “that you wish to learn what news the king has sent me, eh?” He bent toward her with a sneer. “Trust me, lady, it is of no consequence to you.” He tossed back the rest of the mead and held out the cup to the servant for more.
Elgiva winced. She had brought the mead to loosen his tongue, not addle his wits. Her father was difficult to deal with when he was sober. He was impossible when he was drunk.
“Yet it is news,” she said, careful to keep her voice mild despite the seething anger his bullying always sparked in her. “I would be glad to hear it.” She smiled at him, but he responded with his usual scowl.
“The king’s second son has died,” he said, carelessly tossing the parchment to the floor.
She stared at him, willing his bald statement to be a lie even as it echoed in her head. She had thought to wed an ætheling—either Athelstan or Ecbert—for it had been foretold to her that she would one day be queen. How else could that come about if not by an alliance with either the king or one of his sons? But the king, tied as he was to his whey-faced queen and her half-Norman brat, had gone beyond her reach. And now, if her father spoke true, Ecbert, too, had been taken from her.
“I don’t believe, it,” she whispered. “He was well enough at Christmas. What happened to him?”
“The missive does not say.” He shrugged. “The king has sons enough. He’ll not miss this one overmuch.”
“Even so, it will mean a dismal feasting at the Easter court.” Still, Athelstan would be there and would perhaps need consolation in the wake of his brother’s death.
“That, too, is of little consequence to you,” her father replied, “for neither you nor I will be attending the feast at Cookham, although it seems the king desires our company. We must disappoint him, I fear, but I will send your brothers in my place.”
He had surprised her again. To ignore the king’s summons to the Easter council was likely to raise suspicions in Æthelred’s already suspicious mind. Why do such a thing?
“My brothers can hardly take your place, my lord,” she said smoothly, “as you are his most prominent ealdorman, and their counsel can hardly measure up to yours. Besides, why should we not attend the gathering? The queen will have been looking for me to return to her household for some weeks now, and by—”
“Are you so eager to return to your royal keepers?” he snapped. “Now that I’ve prized you from the court, I see no good reason to take you back there again. You are my property, Elgiva, not the king’s, and I’ll not have my plans for you disrupted because Æthelred decides to take you into his bed again or to marry you off behind my back.”
“What plans?” she demanded. This was what she had feared for some weeks—that he had kept her here because he intended to put her to some use that suited his purpose, without caring in the least what she might want.
“You will learn that when the time is right,” he said. “Until then I will keep you close by my side because I have learned that I cannot trust anyone else to watch over you.”
She glared at him, and he glared back at her, confident, she supposed, that he had kept her blind and deaf, as helpless as a newborn kitten. But he was wrong about that, for she knew more about his affairs than he imagined.
“I am aware of your frequent dealings with northerners, my lord,” she hissed, “and I’ve heard that even men from across the Danish sea have been in this—”
In an instant he had slammed down his cup and grasped her arm with all the strength of a man well used to wielding a sword. She found herself thrust into a corner out of sight and hearing of the men in the hall.
“If you cannot watch your tongue, girl, I shall cut it out for you,” he snarled. “And while you’re about it, keep that inquisitive little nose of yours out of my business. I promise you, I look forward to the day when I hand you off to your husband and you become someone else’s problem.”
“And that day would be when?” she spat at him. “Soon, I think, for I am twenty summers old and you must use me before I am too old to be considered a prize for any man!”
“You are no prize now, sullied as you are by the king’s lust.” He gave her a shake, and then, to her astonishment, he grinned. “But have no fear, daughter,” he said jovially, his words slurred and indistinct. “Your betrothal is all but settled. In the end, you will thank me.”
He stumbled against her, and she realized that the drink had done its work and more. He would be less careful now about what he said.
“Who is it then?” she demanded. “Who am I to wed? I will go to him gladly, so long as you have not sold me to some brute of a Dane.”
The words were barely out of her mouth before he’d clamped a hand at her throat.
“I told you to keep your mouth shut!” he snarled. “Get you back to your chamber, now; I’ve no more to say to you.”
He thrust her away from him and, her mouth set in a grim line, she left the hall.
Her father had not revealed everything, but he had said enough.
He had done the unthinkable—betrothed her to some filthy Danish warlord, some savage with a great deal of gold who wanted to buy a noble wife and rich properties in England. What had been the bride price, she wondered, that her father had demanded for her? Whatever the settlement, it would prove worthless, for she would marry no Dane. She had watched them rape and murder her old nurse, and her father well knew how much she hated and feared them. If he tried to force her into a marriage with one of those brutes, she would murder him with her own hands.
But it would not come to that. The king’s messenger must still be here, for he would eat and rest while a fresh mount was readied. If she could just get to him, she could put a stop to this marriage herself.
She sent the maidservant—her father’s eyes and ears, she was certain—to the larder house with what remained of the mead. Inside her own chamber she went to the coffer that held her most precious belongings, unlocked it, and withdrew a handful of coins. It should be enough, she guessed, to enlist the services of the royal messenger and to purchase the silence of any of her father’s grooms who might be about.
Fearing that she may already be too late, she made her way swiftly to the stables.
The king’s man, she saw with relief, was still there, checking the girth of his mount while a young groom clutched the bridle and spoke soothingly to the gelding. There was no one else about.
She went up to the boy holding the horse, whispered, “You did not see me here,” and pressed a coin into his palm. “Understand?” He grinned and nodded, and she added, “There’s more of that for you if you make sure that no one enters the stable while I am here.”
He scurried to the door, and she left him to watch the entryway while she turned to the courier. The man did not even glance at her, clearly in a hurry to be off. She stepped to his side and whispered with some urgency, “I am Lord Ælfhelm’s daughter. I would have you carry a message to the king.”
“Aye, lady,” he said, his eyes still trained on his task. He continued to busy himself with the saddle straps, and she was tempted to snatch his hand and force him to attend to her. There was no need, though. A moment later, apparently satisfied at last with his mount, he finally turned to face her. “What is it then?”
Now she hesitated. What if she could not trust him? What if he simply strode into her father’s hall and repeated to him everything she said?
She studied his face. He was young, barely more than a gawky lad, fair-haired and smooth-faced. Now that he was looking at her, his eyes glimmered with interest and, she thought, admiration. Surely he would be sympathetic to the plight of a woman under the thumb of a cruel father. And even if he betrayed her, no punishment that her father could inflict on her would be worse than a Danish marriage.
“You must tell him,” she said, gazing at him earnestly and willing her eyes to fill with tears, “that my father has betrothed me against my will to a Danish lord, and that I beg the king to help me, for only he can stop the alliance. Tell him too that my brothers are in my father’s confidence, and the king must not trust them.” She took the man’s hand and placed four bright silver pennies there. “Can you do that for me?”
His eyes widened when he looked at the coins in his hand. She had probably given him too much, but she did not care. If he did as she asked, it was silver well spent.
“I will give him the message, my lady,” he said, quickly slipping the coins into the purse at his belt, as if he feared she might ask for some of them back.
“Can you remember all of it?” she asked.
“I have it here,” he said, tapping a finger to his forehead. “The king will have it in three days’ time; I give you my word.”
He nodded to her, and she stepped back as he mounted his horse. Keeping to the shadows of the stable, she held her breath as she watched him ride toward the manor gate. If the gate wards should stop and question him, he might give her away, however unwittingly. But they waved him through, and she expelled a little sigh of relief. She pressed another coin into the filthy hand of the stable lad and, satisfied that she had disrupted her father’s wretched scheme, she returned swiftly to her chamber.
The matter was in the king’s hands now. He would be furious when he learned what her father was planning, of course—would likely impose a fine or confiscate some of his properties just for considering such a move.
Her brothers would likely suffer the same fate. In truth, she wasn’t certain that her brothers were aware of her father’s plans. But if she had accused them falsely, what did it matter? They had treated her badly for years upon years, and now she would have her revenge.
She wanted all of them punished, but especially her father. For far too long he had kept her from his counsels, had plotted her future with never a thought for her interests and desires. He had treated her like a fool instead of recognizing that she could be of far more use to him if he would but confide in her. She would make him see that she was not without resources, make him regret that he had so badly misjudged both her wit and her willingness to bend to his will.
A procession of heavily laden carts was making its way from the Thames bridge toward the East Ceap. Athelstan nudged his mount past it, grimacing at the noisy clatter of wooden wheels on graveled street. It was just past midday, the sun had burned away the mist that frequently hovered over the river, and London was, as usual, crowded as well as noisy.
And stinking, he thought, as he was forced to wait for another cart, laden with baskets of fish, to turn into the side gate of one of the city’s larger hagas before he could make his way into Æthelingstrete.
A sennight ago, when Ecbert’s coffin had been borne along this route to St. Paul’s Abbey, the streets had been quiet. The ground had been more river than road that day and the air thick with fog and mist, but the men and women who had lined Æthelingstrete to watch the somber procession had stood in silence—a mark of respect for his brother that still moved him.
It had been ten days since Ecbert had died, yet a dozen times on each of those days he had found himself turning to speak to the brother who had been his near constant companion for as long as he could remember—only to discover yet again that Ecbert was not there. He wondered if he would ever become accustomed to that emptiness. Certainly he had tried. He had thrown himself into his work, overseeing the building of a new wooden tower on the London side of the bridge; it exercised his brain and body well enough, but it did little to fill the void that Ecbert had left behind.
He rode beneath the wooden archway that marked the entrance to what the Londoners called the Æthelings’ Haga—usually an apt description, although since Ecbert’s death and Edmund’s immediate departure for Wiltshire, he had been the only ætheling in London. That was apparently no longer the case, he concluded, eyeing the lathered mounts in the yard. Edmund must be back.
He left his horse with a groom and moments later he entered the hall, where he found his brother waiting for him, still cloaked and grimed from travel. Edmund was seated at a table with an ale cup in his hand, and he wore an expression forbidding enough to keep the other men in the hall—slaves, men-at-arms, and trusted companions—at a healthy distance.
Even on a good day, Athelstan knew, Edmund could be forbidding. He had always been burly, but now, at seventeen, he had outstripped all his brothers in height. Athelstan couldn’t even remember the last time he’d won a wrestling match with Edmund. It had been years ago.
Going on looks alone, men took care not to cross Edmund.
The dark, silent one, their grandmother, the dowager queen, had named him. They are always the most dangerous. When he speaks, you would do well to listen.
At the moment Edmund was staring into his ale cup as if he could read the fate of the world there and he had just discovered that the world was about to end.
“You look like hell,” Athelstan said, sitting down opposite his brother. And no wonder, considering the tidings he had borne to the king. “How bad was it?”
Edmund took a long pull from his cup, then set it down and stared at it morosely.
“He wanted to know every detail,” he said heavily, “so I had to relive it in the telling.” He took a breath and ran a hand through the thick brown hair that set him apart from his Saxon-fair brothers. “One can’t blame him, I suppose, for wanting to make certain that all had been done for Ecbert that could have been.” He drained his cup, then pushed it away from him. “She came in while I was answering his questions. Hung on every word. Pretended to grieve for Ecbert. As if anyone would believe that she would mourn the death of one who might have stood between her son and the throne.” He scowled at Athelstan. “I am mistaken,” he corrected himself. “You would believe it.”
“Leave off, Edmund,” he said wearily.
Emma had ever been a sore point between them. To Edmund she was not a living, breathing woman but a tool of her ambitious brother, the Norman duke Richard, and so a threat to all the sons of the king’s first marriage. And as for him—but he thrust the thought of Emma away from him. She was on his mind far too often as it was.
“Was the king satisfied that we had done all we could to save Ecbert?” Had they done all that they could to save their brother? The question had been nagging at him like a toothache and would not go away.
“Do you mean does the king blame you for Ecbert’s death?”
Edmund’s penetrating eyes probed his own, and Athelstan admitted to himself that this was exactly what he’d meant. As the eldest ætheling he had always shouldered responsibility for his brothers’ welfare, at least when they were together. He had also been burdened with most of the blame whenever their father found fault with them.
He made no reply, though, and Edmund shook his head.
“Ecbert’s illness and death were no fault of yours, Athelstan, and the king knows that. When will you allow yourself to believe it?”
“I keep asking myself if there was something more—”
“The answer is no,” Edmund said. “He was treated, he was blessed, he was shriven, and he has gone to God. Now you must let him go.” He leaned across the table and his dark eyes were insistent. “You cannot bring him back.”
Athelstan rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. Edmund was right. He could not bring Ecbert back from death; could not change his wyrd. Yet since Ecbert had died, he had been unable to rid his mind of words that he had long tried to forget.
A bitter road lies before the sons of Æthelred—all but one.
That prophecy had been uttered two years before, within the shadow of a pagan stone dance by one who was said to be able to read the future. They were dismal words that he had repeated to no one. Why tell others a thing that he wished he had never heard himself? Even if he had shared the prophecy with Ecbert, it would not have changed anything; nor would it change Edmund’s fate, whatever it might be, if he were to speak of it now.
So he remained silent, and when he looked again at his brother he saw that there must be something more on Edmund’s mind, for he was tapping his fingers nervously against his empty cup while he chewed on his lower lip. When Edmund did not speak, Athelstan prodded him. “What are you not telling me?”
“It’s just that . . .” Edmund frowned, glanced away, then seemed to make up his mind about whatever was troubling him. “Ecbert’s death did not surprise the king. He already knew. When I entered the hall he looked up at me and nodded, as if he had been waiting for me. Before I said a single word he asked, Which of my sons is dead? Not sick or injured, but dead. He knew. I have been trying to explain it to myself all during the long journey back, but I cannot make sense of it. How could he have known?”
Edmund’s question hung in the air between them, and Athelstan was uncertain how best to answer it. Not with the truth, for the king had forbidden him to speak it.
The king is troubled in his mind.
It was Archbishop Ælfheah who had first alerted him to his father’s secret torment. And then he had witnessed it himself—had seen the king cower, gray-faced with horror from some invisible threat. Afterward, when his father was himself again, he had spoken of seeing signs and portents of disaster.
Had he, then, been given some warning of the death of a son?
Jesu. He did not want to believe it, did not even wish to discuss it with Edmund. To do so was to tread perilously close to what he had been forbidden to reveal.
“For fifteen years,” he said, “the kingdom has suffered one blow after another. Viking raids, lost battles, murrains, flooding, famine—it is no wonder that the king looks for calamities. And rumor, as you know, travels on the wind.”
Edmund gave him a dubious look.
“Aye,” he said slowly. “Rumor. That may explain it.” Then his face took on the shuttered expression that hid what he really thought.
Edmund would let it go for now, and Athelstan hoped that there would never be reason to speak of it again.
“While we’re on the subject of tale-telling, then,” his brother went on, “you should know that Archbishop Wulfstan arrived while I was at Calne. He bent the king’s ear for the space of a long meal, and whatever news he brought from the north, the king did not like it.”
That was no surprise. When their mother had died, the northern links that their father had forged through that marriage had been broken, and no measures had been taken to restore them. The northerners felt far more loyalty to one another than to a distant king who all but ignored them.
“There may be rebellion stirring among the Mercians and Northumbrians,” he said, “and Ealdorman Ælfhelm is likely up to his neck in it. The northerners’ allegiance to the king is no stronger than a chain made of straw.” And what would his father do to stem that unrest? Another massacre, like the one on St. Brice’s Day three years before, when so many Danes in England had been put to the sword?
“If our father had taken Ælfhelm’s daughter to wife instead of Emma,” Edmund growled, “there would be no trouble in the north. We need a more binding alliance with Ælfhelm or with one of the other northern lords to keep them loyal to us rather than to their Danish brethren across the sea. It should have been forged long ago.”
“A marriage, you mean.”
“Your marriage,” Edmund said, “to Ælfhelm’s scheming daughter, yes. It’s what the girl and her father have wanted since before you could grow a beard and not, as you know, because of your comely face and bright blue eyes.”
Edmund was right about that. Elgiva, she-wolf that she was, had tried to worm her way into his bed for political gain—drawn to his status as heir to the throne. When that had failed she had opened her legs for the king instead, who used her as any king would. Despite that, he would take her to wife if it would ease the situation in the north—and if there was a chance that the king would approve. Which there was not.
“The king,” he said, “will never allow it.”
“Then you must do it without his permission.”
“Sweet Christ,” he muttered. “You know how the king would regard that. He would think that I was making a bid for his crown. I might gain the allegiance of the northern lords, but the king would see it as the blackest treachery. It would rip the kingdom in two.”
“Then you must reason with him. Convince him of the necessity of a marriage alliance with Ælfhelm’s daughter!”
“And you think he would listen to me?” Athelstan barked a bitter laugh. “When has he ever heeded any counsel that I have offered? For twenty years he has followed no one’s counsel but his own, and I have not the art to frame my words in a way that would convince him that they sprang from his own mind.”
“You have to try, Athelstan,” Edmund insisted. “We have to try, and we won’t be without support, I promise you. Ælfmær in the west and Wulfnoth in Sussex would welcome it. Most of the southern nobles would understand the necessity of such a move. At the very least, let us broach to Ælfhelm’s sons the idea of a marriage, and see what kind of response we get. We will have wagered nothing.”
He could guess the likely outcome of that. If his father heard of it, he would deem it a conspiracy led by his two eldest sons. The king already mistrusted him; this could only add to his suspicions.
Yet Edmund was right. Something must be done to prevent Ælfhelm from stirring up trouble in the north. Despite the king’s wrath, for the sake of the kingdom he and Edmund would have to take the risk and raise the possibility of a marriage. He did not see that they had a choice.
The springtime sun was westering when Æthelred, satisfied with the day’s sport, beckoned his falconer. Before transferring his prize gyrfalcon from his own leather-clad arm to the keeper’s, he spoke a few soft words to the bird. The hawking season was nearly done, and this one had earned his summer’s rest.
All his raptors had done well today—seven cranes brought down. Clean kills, every one.
As he mounted his horse, one of his retainers gave a shout and pointed to a rider who had just topped a nearby ridge and was moving slowly toward them.
“Someone from Calne,” Æthelred said, “although whatever news he brings does not look to be urgent.”
Soon enough he saw who it was—Eadric of Shrewsbury—another kind of raptor that he had loosed months ago and who was now come back to the lure. What prey, he wondered, had Eadric brought to ground? He had set the young thegn a delicate task, and now he was about to find out if he had been successful.
He gestured to his men to follow at a distance while he spurred his horse toward Eadric. The journey back to the manor would take the better part of an hour, and he and Eadric had much to discuss.
As he drew near to the younger man, he studied Eadric’s handsome, bearded face with its thin, sharp nose and high brow. He’d chosen wisely with this one. Eadric’s dark good looks inspired trust, and he radiated a pleasing charm that worked on women and men alike.
At a glance, no one would guess how very dangerous he was. Eadric, he’d found, was the perfect tool—efficient, reserved, thorough, and, when necessary, casually ruthless.
“I hope you met with success,” he said as Eadric fell in beside him. “Word has reached me recently that Ælfhelm is planning to bestow his daughter upon a Danish warlord. Can you confirm it?”
“Indeed, my lord,” Eadric replied. His eyes, black as a raven’s wing, met Æthelred’s with brutal frankness.
“Aye. For some time now, a man who serves Lord Ælfhelm has been carrying messages back and forth across the Danish sea. It is always the same man and he always takes ship from Gainesborough. That was where I spoke with him but seven days ago.”
“And he told you who is to claim Elgiva and all her lands?”
“He told me what he knew—that she is to wed someone very close to the Danish king.”
Æthelred gnawed on his lower lip. For the right price, a man might admit such a thing even if it were not true. He wanted assurance, beyond any doubt, that Ælfhelm was planning such an alliance. The man’s vague excuse for missing the Easter court because of pressing matters in Mercia rang as false as a whore’s promises of love. Still, he wanted to be sure.
“How can you be certain that he told you the truth?”
“I bartered the life of his wife and her two whelps for the information,” Eadric said. “It took a little bloodletting to get him to speak, but he cooperated eventually. And when, after the first babe was dead and I could get no more out of the vermin but howls, I felt certain that he had told me everything he knew. I had to kill them all, of course, in the end.”
Æthelred grunted. Treachery carried a high price.
“How long, think you, before Ælfhelm’s suspicion is aroused?”
Eadric shrugged. “Some weeks, at least. Anyone who asks after them will be told that they took ship for Denmark and have not returned.”
“Good,” he said. It gave him time to strike before his prey grew wary. “This marriage must not go forward.”
His greatest fear was that, with a Danish warlord at his side and with the support of King Swein, Ælfhelm would grow bold enough to attempt to wrest all the land north of the Humber from English rule. It had happened before. Fifty years ago Eric Bloodaxe had styled himself King of Jorvik, and although the upstart Viking had been driven from his makeshift throne, the memory of that Norse kingdom on English soil was still fresh and alluring in the minds of the men of Northumbria and northern Mercia. How they chafed under the rule of the ancient kings of Wessex!
“Will you bind the lady to someone loyal to yourself instead?” Eadric asked, his eyes alight with interest. “Someone who will stand with you against any Danish assault?”
Bind her! Æthelred allowed himself a grim smile. He would like to bind Elgiva in chains and shut her in some island tower so that he would never have to think on her again. She was like a lodestone that her father was using to draw men of iron into his plots against his king. Even now, in Eadric’s question, he could hear the man’s unspoken yearning to be the one to claim the lady’s hand—and wealth. But to wed the cunning Elgiva to any man with a thirst for power was to create yet another enemy.
He should have wed the girl himself, bound the restless northerners to him with blood ties as he had done with his first marriage. But he had chosen instead to forge an alliance with the Norman duke. He had taken Emma to wife hoping to deprive Danish raiders of the friendly ports that welcomed them along the Narrow Sea within striking distance of England’s coast. He had sealed the alliance by giving Emma a crown and a son—all for naught. His southern shores were still beset by Vikings, while in the north men plotted against him.
“There is no man,” he said at last, “with whom I would trust the Lady Elgiva.” He had a sudden vivid memory of Elgiva’s little bow of a mouth and the things that she could do with it—an agreeable memory, but alarming as well. “She is ambitious and shrewd,” he muttered, “and she would harry her husband until he set all of England at her feet.”
“Then can you not place her in a convent?” Eadric suggested. “Bestow her lands on the nuns at Shaftesbury or Wilton?”
“Her father would never agree to such a fate for his precious daughter. And if any man had a mind to wed her, convent walls would not prevent it. My own father got two children on a nun. No, a vow of chastity and even abbey walls made of stone would not deter a man determined to claim such a prize, and they certainly would not stop a Danish warlord.”
Both men rode in silence for a space, then Æthelred gave voice to the purpose that had been forming in his mind from the moment that he had received Elgiva’s plea for deliverance from a Danish marriage.
“Ælfhelm has become too powerful,” he said. “He has forged a web of conspirators throughout Mercia and into Northumbria. Nay, not a web but a hydra, and I must sever every head if I am to put an end to the plots. Were you able to learn the names of the men who have been a party to this enterprise?”
And for the first time, Eadric disappointed him.
“Forgive me, my lord, but I could not,” he said. “Surely, though, Ælfhelm’s sons must know his plans.”
Æthelred nodded. He would discover what the sons knew when they joined the court at Easter. His more immediate concern was Ælfhelm. He must be dealt with efficiently and—for now—in secret.
“Did you learn aught else from your Gainesborough messenger?”
“He carried nothing in writing. I could only wring from him the words he was meant to deliver to Ælfhelm: Look to Lammas Day.”
Lammas Day. August first, when men would be busy with the harvest and reluctant to answer a call to defend villages and fields that were not their own.
Still, it was months away. There was time yet to sever the bond between Ælfhelm and the Danes.
“Ælfhelm has ignored my summons to the Easter council. I would have you make certain that he never attends another one.” He cast a quick glance at Eadric, who was cocking an interested eyebrow. “You are newly come into your inheritance,” he continued, “and Ælfhelm is your ealdorman. Feast him. Flatter him. Invite him to your hall and make sure he brings his daughter with him.”
He glanced again at Eadric’s face, but—as he’d expected—he saw no shadow of hesitation or distaste.
“What of the girl?” Eadric asked.
“Take her, but do not harm her. It was she who warned me of her father’s treachery, and that has earned her some grace. I will have to send her away from England, to Hibernia perhaps, where she is less likely to stir up mischief.”
Although, he thought with a frown, even in Hibernia the lady could be a threat. He would have to give more thought as to how he would provide for Elgiva. The fates of her father and brothers, though, were now sealed. The hydra that threatened him would lose three of its heads, at the least.
Holy Saturday, April 1006
Excerpted from "The Price of Blood"
Copyright © 2015 Patricia Bracewell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked the part where Athelstan was arriving in London.
Loved the book and the historical details.
I enjoyed reading about this time period. Emma is a grand heroine.
This book has everything a book can. Great strife mtstery, and wonderful details. I'm looking forward to the next hoping it won't be the last .
Can't wait for the next book.
Finally book 2 has arrived! It did not dissapoint. I reread book one Shadow on the Crown before diving into this one. This picks up where the other left off. I really feel for Emma and I am amazed at everything people had to go through back then. I hope we don't have wait so long for book three.
Hard to get into. First book was better.