Despite his savage manner Esbjorn had a taste for luxury. The floor of the tent was strewn with dry rushes and thick furs. Costly fleeces were heaped upon a bed. A large oak table had been set up for feasting and sitting around this, with the remnants of a meal still upon it, were Esbjorn, Olaf and a third man who we had not seen before.
‘Edgar, my child,’ cried Esbjorn. He was full of a bluff friendship which was so false it could surely fool no one. ‘I trust you had pleasant dreams in the little house you visited?’
I smiled but did not answer.
‘Who is this?’ I asked, pointing to the stranger and taking a seat.
Esbjorn clapped the young man around the shoulder. ‘This is Harald, my nephew,’ he said. ‘He is the eldest son of my brother.’
‘The heir to the Danish throne,’ I said pointedly.
Olaf giggled quietly at my words.
‘You must be Prince Edgar,’ said Harald. He spoke slowly and softly as if it were a terrible effort.
‘King Edgar,’ said Merleswein.
‘King No-Land,’ said Olaf.
‘The jest wears thin, Olaf,’ I found myself saying.
Esbjorn turned to me, his gaze blank and unknowable. ‘Not to me,’ he murmured.
A heavy silence settled upon the tent.
‘I think we can all agree the time for jesting is over,’ said Athelstan. ‘We must make plans to march south.’
‘Must?’ said Harald. He gave a little, humourless laugh. ‘There is surely no must. We shall do as we choose.’
At that moment the flap of the tent was thrown open and Cnut strode in. He drew up a stool between Harald and me.
‘My family and my friends,’ he said, with a grin. ‘What more could I want?’
There was no response to him and no welcome.
Athelstan rapped on the table to attract attention. Esbjorn’s bristled at this but decided to say nothing.
Athelstan waited until he had everyone’s attention and then began to speak in a quiet yet forceful tone. He reminded everyone of our alliance and of our plans to defeat the Normans. He spoke of how swiftly William’ appeared to have responded to the armed resistance across the country.
‘William will not rest or wait on events,’ he said finally. ‘We must fight him, either on ground of his choosing or of ours.’
‘So what do the Danes choose?’ I asked. ‘Athelstan is correct. William moves as if on wings. For all we know he is watching us from beyond the marshes at this very moment.’
‘He is in the south,’ said Olaf. ‘He won’t venture so far north in winter.’
‘What makes you believe so?’
‘Because this is hostile territory,’ said Esbjorn. ‘William is strong in the south and the land is fat. He knows that he will find no friends here and precious little food.’
‘And in the south, he can easily scuttle off to Normandy,’ said Harald.
‘Don’t be too sure of that,’ said Cnut. ‘William plays for high stakes and he is no coward. The only way we will send him back to Normandy is as a corpse.’
‘I agree with Cnut,’ I said. ‘William is a more deadly foe than you can know.’
‘Hearken to the seasoned warrior,’ cried Olaf.
‘He is as seasoned as you, brother,’ said Cnut quietly. ‘Maybe more so.’
I was surprised at Cnut’s words but was not alone in this. Olaf glared at him with venom. I thought for a moment that he might spring at me but at last he hung his head and gnawed on his thumb.
Harald spread his arms wide. ‘We are secure here,’ he said. ‘I say we should wait until my father sends a fleet to strengthen us still further. And if William chooses to attack then he will be marching to his own death.
‘I don’t agree,’ said Cnut. ‘We are strong at the moment, and we have the English army with us. Starvation can slay Danes as well as Normans. If we wait too long our bellies will grow tight with hunger. Worse than that, our blades will rust. While we are strong we should destroy William.’
‘I am in command here,’ said Esbjorn. There was a dangerous edge to his voice.
I glanced from Esbjorn to Cnut. Olaf moved in his seat, ever so slightly.
I sensed that there was tension here. I stowed this knowledge away, thinking that it might prove useful in the future.
‘All know this,’ said Cnut quietly. ‘We follow where you lead.’
Esbjorn turned his one eye upon Cnut. Neither man moved for long moments. Finally Cnut looked away.
Esbjorn pointed towards Olaf. ‘The map,’ he said curtly.
Olaf threw the remnants of the meal off the table and spread a map of England upon it. Esbjorn stood and leant over it. He gestured me to join him.
‘Where do you think the Normans are, Edgar?’ he asked. His voice sounded quiet and thoughtful.
I shook my head. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘He could be anywhere.’
‘Precisely.’ Esbjorn’s voice turned. Now it sounded like a blade being whetted upon a stone.
‘You have not the slightest inkling of where William is,’ he said, ‘yet you would have me abandon a fortified site and lead my army who knows where across a land gripped by winter with no certainty of ever finding our enemy.’ He turned his pitiless gaze upon me. ‘Forgive me if I ignore your words of wisdom.’
Wastland is the second book in The Lost King series which starts with The Lost King: Resistance. Both e-books are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple, WH Smith and other outlets.
I am currently writing the third novel.