|UK edition||Publisher||:||William Heinemann - Random House Books|
|UK edition||Publisher||:||Arrow - paperback|
|US edition||Publisher||:||Sourcebooks Inc|
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The Queen, Emma, knew from the grey pallor on Earl Godwine's face, and by the way he stood, one step within the threshold, that something was wrong. Horribly wrong.
"My Lord, you are wet through?" she said, a question in her voice, although the statement was obvious. A second question, of why he had come to Winchester, so unexpected in such torrential rain, hovered unspoken. Rising from her chair, set for comfort beside the hearth fire, she indicated with her hand that he may enter her private chamber, come closer, warm himself.
To her handmaid ordered, "Fetch wine and food. Broth. My Lord Earl will require something hot."
The girl bobbed a curtsey and squeezing past the Earl, scuttled from the chamber. But Godwine remained at the door, his thumbs depressing the iron door latch. How was he to tell her? How could he repeat news that would break this good lady's heart like shattered pieces of glass?
"My Lady Queen," he finally stammered, "I have ridden at the gallop since dawn."
He shook his head slowly, held out both hands, palms uppermost, pleading for her to read what was in his mind to save the pain of having to say this thing aloud. How could she guess? No one in England could have foreseen this. No one. His arms fell to his side, a tear slithering down his cheek. His hair was rain-matted, his cloak and boots sodden, his chin beard-stubbled.
In despair, quick, with one breath, "My Lady, your husband is dead. God took the King from us during the darkness of night."
Emma stood perfectly still, barely breathing, her face draining of colour. She licked her lips, shook her head, denying what she had heard.
"No." She said, backing away from Godwine and stumbling over a footstool. "Oh, God! No!"
He hurried after her, took hold of her shoulders. "We could not rouse him from sleep. His physician, who knows of these things, believes it to have been a seizure of the heart. He looked to be at peace, did not feel pain or discomfort."
Emma, Regina Anglorum, Queen of England, remained silent for several long moments, her mind, eyes and heart, blank, numb. Then, with a steady calm, graciously thanked Earl Godwine for his trouble in riding to her on this cold, wet day.
"It was good of you to come to me personally, not send some mere messenger. You have always been loyal," she spoke with a controlled smile. "I am grateful for that, and for your friendship. Attributes, that may, I fear, be sorely tried in the weeks that must now lay ahead of us." She faltered, the control collapsing into the sham it was, her lip trembled, tears welled. No one, since her sixth birthday, had witnessed her weeping.
Snatching up her cloak from where it lay across a chest, she muttered, "Please, dry yourself before the fire, I would walk alone awhile." Pride had been her only comfort and salvation for too many years; she was not about to alter the schooled endurance of half a lifetime.
Before Godwine could remind her of the bad weather, she had disappeared from the chamber and was running down the wooden stairs, her blue, woollen gown lifted with one clutching hand. Ignoring the sudden hush of the crowded Hall below, she flung the cloak around her shoulders and stepped out into the rain. She did not mind the rain, rain masked the scalding tears and the pain of gut-wrenching, heart-broken grief.
Godwine made to follow her, reached as far as the Hall's outer doors, but here he halted, watched Emma walk across the mud-puddled courtyard towards the shelter of the stables. Turning back into the Hall he intercepted the handmaid, took the bowl and goblet to the nearest trestle, sat. He had ridden straight to the Queen, had not waited to break his fast before leaving Salisbury, nor barely eased his stallion from the punishing gallop he had set. The horse was ruined of course, his wind and legs beyond repair, but what mattered one horse when the King was dead? When so many more horses, and men, would soon also be beyond saving? Earl Godwine ate, drank. Did not notice the taste of either broth or ale.
He would leave Emma a while to mourn alone, respect her need for privacy. Later, would come the time for the murmuring of meaningless platitudes, the empty words that everyone muttered when the unwelcome shadow of death visited.
"He was a good man. A good king..."
"You have your memories..."
Memories? What good were memories, when England would soon, yet again, be wrapped in bloody war? How did memories mend a torn heart? Ease the dread, black, chill of grieving loneliness?
Memories - huh! The Queen, her tear-streaked face buried deep into the warm, comforting flank of her favourite mare, harboured enough memories to fill the Christian world twice over!
Should she choose to begin rummaging through them, where, and with which one should she start...?
"Lady? Lady! Stir yourself!"
Emma woke abruptly, confused and disorientated from a heavy and fevered sleep. There was a man in her chamber. Why? To murder her? Her heart pounding with fear, only dignity salvaged her composure. If they thought she would plead and beg for mercy, they were wrong. To her relief, she recognised Athelstan - and then a second fear burst into her mind - had he turned against his father?
"Lady. We must leave at once."
Athelstan was leaning over her, his hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her. Thank God! He held no dagger!
"Leave? But why? I am unwell. I do not wish to go anywhere."
This illness had seen her to bed for four days with an aching body, a blinding headache, and alternate sweats and shivering. She had not eaten and had drunk only honey-sweetened watered wine. The symptoms were easing but had left her weak and tired.
Despite being ill, she liked it here in the palace at Islip, a handful of miles north of Oxford. A place clean, warm, and well maintained. Especially, she admired the beech woods, dressed in their splendid autumn finery, that crowded beyond the perimeter fencing. Before falling so ill she had walked there several times with Saffron, enjoying the delight of kicking at the leaves piled in dishevelled heaps, and running, laughing up and down the slopes and banks, the dog joyfully barking at her heels. She peered with bruised, tired eyes into her stepson's grave face. Her stay was to be a short happiness, then.
What had possessed Æthelred to command his eldest son to be her escort here she could not imagine. The young man had barely spoken a word to her, confining himself to nods and grunts. She assumed her husband had meant it as a show of trust, a gesture of peace between father and son. Whether Athelstan had accepted it as such, she had no idea; if he had, the peace was likely to be short-lived. The two were always disagreeing, and every argument ended with one of them storming out in a rage. Emma did not mind in the slightest when Athelstan retreated from court to spend isolated weeks in one of his own manors, for his absences were a welcome relief. The Æthelred's rages were not so easy to endure, particularly if there were other things already itching at him like aggravating bites.
Reaching for a mantle, Emma asked, "What is wrong?" It was an effort to talk; her throat and neck hurt, difficult to swallow, to make the words form in her dry mouth.
"Rebellion, Lady. We do not have the men to defend ourselves should Oxford decide to take up arms with the rest of the Danelaw. We are to join my father at Shaftesbury Abbey."
This was not making sense to Emma. "Am I in danger?" Athelstan answered with one curt word: "Yes."
Her ladies, grasping the situation in a flutter of alarm, started to shoo Athelstan from the chamber, pulling clothing from the hanging poles, urging Emma to rise, get dressed.
"I do not think I can ride," Emma protested wearily, swinging her legs from the bed, suppressing a wince of pain from her protesting body. "I do not have the strength to stand."
Running his hand through his fair hair, Athelstan stood, perplexed, within the open door. Below, in the hall, there came sounds of hasty packing and preparing to leave. Outside, horses being led into the courtyard, chests and bundles being secured to harnessed pack ponies and mules.
"I did not want to take the wagons," he said,"they will slow us down."
Damn! This whole thing was becoming a nightmare. Emma pushed herself to her feet, tried a smile.
"I will do my best not to delay you," she said. Her face was pale, beads of sweat were scattered on her forehead. "Give me time to dress."
Making a decision Athelstan shook his head."Get your ladies to wrap you warm and comfortable, then wait here. You shall ride up with me."
"Pallig's widow and children are in Oxford," Emma stated, already drawing on her woollen stockings, ignoring the presence of a man. "Are they safely away?"
Athelstan reddened. To his shame he had not thought of them, but then why should he? It was only the troublemakers Eadric Streona would be going after, not the women and children.
"It is you I must get to safety," he answered."Please, be as quick as you can."
Wanting to argue, Emma opened her mouth to protest, but Athelstan had retreated from the chamber, and she did not have the energy to summon him back.
Athelstan himself carried Emma down the wooden stairs, his glower silencing any remark from his brother or young Godwine, who were mounted and ready to leave. She weighed no more than a merlin; she would not have been able to ride alone, and a litter would be too slow. Lifting Emma onto his stallion's withers, Athelstan vaulted into the saddle, his arm supportive around her waist.
"Forgive the intimacy," he murmured. "I can see no other way for you to travel."
There was only the one good road south, and it passed close to Oxford. From two miles away they saw the smoke palling into the sky, nearer, heard the cries and screams. Athelstan cursed, urged his horse into a canter. Damn Streona! He had sent orders for him to wait until they were safely away. This was typical of the man, never seeing sense above stark impatience, and always blaming the outcome to be someone else's fault.
Emma's eyes were dull, her skin burning. She lifted her head from Athelstan's shoulder, looked towards the rise of Oxford's surrounding walls.
"What is it?" she asked, frowning, forcing her sluggish mind to concentrate."Why is the town burning, Athelstan? There is something wrong, we must stop."
How he regretted, through the years to come, not heeding her instinctive concern, but what could he have done had he complied? Could he have stopped the killing and the slaughter? Would the lives of the innocent have been saved had he reined in and entered Oxford? Or would more have died on this Saint Brice's Day had he tried to curb Streona's vengeance? Who could say that the Æthelings and Emma too, might not have fallen among those being savagely massacred? Once the smell of blood had been let loose in the air, the lust of killing always took hold. Regret only came after, when the blood has been washed away.
Tightening his grip around Emma's waist, Athelstan dug his spurs into his grey's flanks and drove him forward into a reckless gallop, bellowing at his small emergency retinue of men to follow close behind, swords drawn.
Exhausted, light-headed, Emma buried her head in his mantle, shutting out as well as she could the desperate cries of death and the sounds of its making, Athelstan's own vigorous blasphemy against God and his contempt of his father and Eadric Streona loud in her ears.