By the time we had dismounted Esbjorn and Cnut had climbed down from the palisade and were striding towards us.
The sun was low in the west and as Esbjorn approached his shadow loomed large in front of him. Yet this was as nothing compared to the shadow of his soul. It towered above us like the mightiest of storm-clouds and I felt I could taste its malice. My throat constricted merely at his presence. I glanced round at my friends and saw that they were affected in the same way.
Even the mighty Siward Barn looked puny in comparison with Esbjorn. ‘Here’s one that even you would be wise not to wrestle,’ I heard Merleswein whisper to him. Siward nodded silently.
Cnut grinned at us. ‘Uncle, these are the English lords,’ he said. ‘Prince Edgar, Earl Gospatric, Lord Merleswein and Thegn Athelstan.’ He nodded at Waltheof and Siward. ‘These men I do not know.’
‘I am Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon,’ said Waltheof. His voice was quiet but steady.
‘And I am Siward Barn,’ said the big Mercian. ‘I am a thegn from Gloucestershire and have brought two hundred companions to join King Edgar.’
Esbjorn stared at him for a full minute until his one eye vanquished Siward’s two and the Englishman looked away.
‘King Edgar?’ Esbjorn asked. ‘Who can you mean by such a title?’ His voice was as harsh as his face, more akin to the cawing of crows than anything else.
Before Siward could answer I stepped forward a pace. ‘I am King Edgar,’ I said.
Esbjorn’s glance leapt at me like a snake. I have been told that a viper can make a mouse immobile merely by staring at it. Esbjorn made me his mouse. I felt borne down by a vast weight and my tongue thickened so that I found it hard to speak. But I swallowed and forced my mouth to work.
‘I am King Edgar,’ I heard myself say in a little voice. ‘I am rightful lord of England but my kingdom was usurped by the Norman bastard who has no claim to it and no right to rule.’
I paused and licked my dry lips. ‘I am glad to have the mighty warrior Esbjorn Estrithson as friend.’
I took a deep breath. I felt proud of how I had dealt with the situation.
‘You speak with honey words, little man,’ rasped Esbjorn. He spat a thick wad of yellow phlegm at my feet. ‘That is what I think of honey words. Deeds are what makes a man and the greatest deeds make a king. Anything less is just piss in the wind.’
I was silent for a moment and then I found my voice again. ‘I hear that the winds are strong in Denmark,’ I said. ‘A man must need to keep tight hold of his prick in that land.’
Esbjorn’s one eye contracted like that of a wild cat.
Then he laughed aloud. I sensed it was not a laugh of true good humour but it was so vibrant that it did a good imitation of it.
‘I like your style little prince,’ he said. He raised his hand towards me and somehow a dagger was lying on the palm. ‘And little prince is what I shall call you until you are able to use a blade such as this in deeds worthy of the name of king.’
There was a long silence. Cnut stepped forward. ‘Come friends,’ he said. ‘Let us eat and make plans for the destruction of the Normans.’
There was an immediate lifting of the atmosphere but it was not to last.
The feast was a torment. We had been invited to sit at the high table. Esbjorn, Cnut and Olaf sat in the centre with their captains on their right and my advisers and me to their left.
Although the food was good we took no pleasure in it because from beginning to end it felt like we were engaged in battle with Esbjorn. He distrusted us and despised us in equal measure and he made no attempt to hide it.
I was nauseated to see that Esbjorn treated Olaf like a little lap-dog and that the young man relished this. From the looks that Cnut gave to his brother it seemed that he found it as unpalatable as I did.
Yet despite the grisly atmosphere a plan was hammered out.
The third book in the series will be available shortly.
- To the Danes at York. Wasteland. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)