On Christmas morning Oswald woke me early and beckoned me to the window. I glanced outside. The sky was as grey as iron and as I watched snowflakes began to swirl. By the time I got my clothes on the snow was layering the ground and the rooftops. An unholy silence seemed to settle on the town. Even the distant barks of dogs were muffled and no birds flew. Godwin and I stared out at the cold whiteness. Normally, I would have flung myself into the snow but this morning my heart was as heavy as a rock and I lingered mournfully in the doorway. Godwin stood beside me, sharing my silence and gloom.
‘Come on lads,’ cried Oswald. ‘Duke William will have me thrown in the river if you are late.’
Serving women came and sighed at the sight of me. They made me strip my clothes off and adorn myself in fine linens and embroidered surcoat. Lastly they wrapped a costly cloak around my shoulders. Then one of my Norman guards came and fastened a sword around my waist. I waited until he had gone before I pulled it from its scabbard. It was blunt.
Oswald looked me up and down. He did not say a word and I could not tell if he was pleased with me or not. It was not like him to be so silent. Then he nodded. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘It is a long ride to the Abbey.’
We followed him out into the snow. I was delighted to see that Leofwine, one of my favourite Housecarls, was waiting outside, holding the reins of my pony. He helped me into the saddle and then we trotted along the river. Waiting on the banks were the rest of my twenty Housecarls and with them a further forty Norman horseman.
‘You have a fine bodyguard,’ said Godwin, his eyes gleaming.
I nodded. Our spirits were lifted by the sight of the warriors.
Slowly we trudged through the still sleeping streets. The snow danced before our eyes like elf spirits in the woods. Time seemed to have no sway and I could not tell whether we spent an hour or many hours in the saddle.
At length, up ahead, we saw the huge bulk of Westminster Abbey appear through the snow. As we got closer, I realised that all the area surrounding it was crowded with Norman soldiers. They were fully armed and looked watchful and nervous. A few local men waited in the doorways of their homes, but there was no sight of their women or children.
We dismounted and entered the vastness of the Abbey. It was like the mightiest hall of a king but twenty times larger. Huge torches flared upon the walls casting dismal shadows. It looked as though the Abbey was full of giant ghosts, their bodies shifting and wavering in the cold draught. I knew a spell against ghosts and was relieved that I could chant it if I had to. But I guessed that the heavy smell of incense would banish any of the dead. I had never liked the smell of incense and here there was so much that it clogged my nostrils and made my throat feel like wool. The priests who swung the incense salvers droned out a miserable dirge all the while. Perhaps they hated the smell as well.
I glanced up at the roof stretching far overhead. The empty space made me feel naked and afraid and I turned my eyes back to the hall. Half of it was empty but nearer the altar were about a hundred men and women, English and Norman.
‘We are not allowed to go any nearer,’ Oswald whispered to me. ‘But we will be waiting here for you, never fear.’
Close to the altar was a small huddle of men, cloaked against the cold. I was ushered up to join them. Most were Normans, although I recognised only Bishop Odo and William fitz Osbern, a close friend of the Duke’s and his steward.
Also there was the traitor Archbishop Stigand, who gave me a winning smile. I stared back at him as though he was a stranger. Next to him was Earl Edwin who looked even more pale and drawn than previously. And to my delight, there was his brother Morcar who gestured me over and made room for me to sit next to him. My Norman guards seemed unhappy with this but did not wish to countermand the earl so contented themselves with crowding close in the bench behind me.
‘How are things with you, Edgar?’ asked Morcar.
I shrugged. ‘I have been kept in a fine house. My bodyguard Oswald has been allowed to stay with me and his son Godwin who is my friend.’ I turned and pointed them out to him.
‘And have you been treated well?’
‘Well enough. They give me fine food and I drink wine instead of ale. But I’m not allowed to go out without ten thousand Norman guards following me.’
Morcar chuckled. ‘It is the same with me. I am treated like the most honoured of guests but feel like a prisoner. I am allowed to see no Englishmen at all. Only Englishwomen.’
‘That must be really boring,’ I said. Morcar gave a strange smile but did not respond.
‘And what about your brother?’ I asked. ‘Do you see him?’
Morcar shook his head. ‘This is the first time that I have seen him since we got to London. He has been lodged at Winchester and I at Barking with Duke William.’
I grinned to myself. It would upset Edwin that the Duke had sent him far away while keeping his younger brother close by him. Either William preferred Morcar’s company, which was understandable, or considered him more of a threat. Either way, Edwin would be angered.
A bellowing horn sounded in the Abbey and the Normans rose to their feet. After a little moment Morcar did so as well and signed me to do the same.
All at once the chatter of the congregation ceased and the last dirge of the priests echoed against the walls and was snuffed out. I turned and saw Archbishop Ealdred of York pacing slowly up the aisle and behind him, in full chain mail and a vast red cloak, Duke William.
At length they reached the altar and began a very long ceremony, some in Latin, a little in English but most in French. I could speak French and followed it, but in the end I got bored. All at once I thought of my dog Rip. I felt terrible. I had not seen him since the morning we left London to seek battle with the Normans. That was nearly three weeks ago. He must be missing me terribly. I would have to seek permission from the Duke to go to find him.
At that point I noticed that there was a lull in the ceremony. Then I saw a Norman priest walk up the aisle bearing a cushion with old King Edward’s crown upon it. I narrowed my eyes. There was only one person who should be wearing that crown, I thought.
The priest approached the archbishop who held the crown aloft above William’s head. ‘People of England,’ he cried in a loud voice. ‘Do you give consent that William should be crowned your king, lawful and anointed in the name of the saviour?’
I shook my head. Only the day before, Oswald had told me that Duke William had decided upon this trick in order to claim that the people of England really did support him. Real kings of England had not needed to seek this consent. Harold had not and neither had I.
‘We consent,’ said the English gathered nearby. I did not.
Then a Norman bishop stepped forward and cried out: ‘Nobles and warriors of Normandy. Do you consent that William be crowned King of England and the English?’
A huge baying came from all of the Normans crowded in the Abbey. The Abbey was so vast and empty that the cry seemed to take on a life of its own, crashing against one wall and back again as though a huge army was camped within it.
At that exact moment, the doors of the Abbey crashed open. I turned in alarm. Armed men rushed into the Abbey crying loud. Some held drawn swords and some had burning torches.
‘Harold,’ I cried. ‘Harold has come.
But it was not Harold. These were Norman soldiers. They hurtled up the aisle, swords waving, clamouring out William’s name.
Then, above the noise, we heard the Duke’s voice. ‘Silence,’ he cried. His voice was so loud that it carried far above the noise of the soldiers. ‘Why have you entered this holy place with swords drawn?’
The Norman soldiers looked about them in confusion.
‘The fools think that the Bastard was in danger,’ said Morcar. ‘They must have thought that the acclamation was some attack upon him.’ He looked around, thoughtfully. ‘They must be as nervous as she-cats.’
At that moment, thick smoke began to billow into the Abbey. William fitz Osbern ran down to the doorway and glanced out. He came charging back up the aisle. ‘Our bloody troops have set the nearby houses on fire,’ he cried.
Then he felled the nearest of the Norman soldiers with his fist.
‘I will not have this panic,’ cried William. His face was scarlet with rage. ‘Quench the fires.’
He glared at Archbishop Ealdred. The old man did not respond for a moment and fitz Osbern pushed him forward. He shook his head and placed the crown upon William’s head.
William jammed the crown further down upon his forehead and then stormed off to a side door. He had only taken half a dozen strides when he turned and hurried back. He grasped me by the shoulder. ‘Come,’ he cried, ‘the whole of the Abbey may be engulfed.’
In a moment we were outside. William stopped and stared at the flames which were fast destroying the nearby houses. Screams of terror and pain cut through the winter day. ‘I had not wanted my coronation to end like this,’ he said. He stared at the burning houses. ‘What a terrible way to die,’ he said.
I stared back at him, surprised at his words.
The first two books of the Lost King series are available at all ebook outlets priced $3.00, £1.95, €2.68CDN$ 2.99 or thereabouts.
The third book, Warrior, will be available in 2013.
You may also want to look at my other novels. ‘Artful’ tells the adventures of the Dodger in Australia where he has been transported and London. ‘Outcasts’ is about the ordinary men who were knighted by Balian of Ibelin to defend Jerusalem against Saladin.
May I wish all readers of this blog a happy holiday season.