25 March 2013

Excerpt: Harold The King

Seeing as I had a small bit of unexpected publicity courtesy the UK's Sunday Mirror, I thought I'd share a chosen at random excerpt: 

Harold the King is the UK title - it is titled 'I Am The Chosen King' in the US 

Edyth Swanneck, Harold Godwineson's mistress/common-law wife, is arriving in London for the first time in her life. 
The year is 1044


London, Edyth realised, was larger, busier and noisier than ever she could have imagined. It also stank. 
She had ridden the dozen or so miles from Nazeing in a state of bubbling euphoria. Her father had allowed her to borrow one of the farm’s mares; Harold himself had presented her with a new saddle of exceptional quality, sent for some weeks previously as a thank-you gift and purchased, he told her, from the most skilled harness-maker in all London. “Soon, you will see where such things are made for yourself. And more besides.” 
They had left an hour after sunrise, thankful that the drizzling rain of the previous day had dried into a cloud-covered but pleasantly warm morning. Edyth wore a spring-green cloak, new-made riding apparel and a smile that Harold said was wider than the River Thames itself. She was also nervous, for she had never travelled so far from home, but Harold stayed always at her side making conversation to put her at ease, although his enthusiasm for the journey was not as buoyant as he pretended. 
The weeks at Nazeing had, once his illness began to abate, been a time of pleasure – not merely because of Edyth. Days of blissful abstention from responsibility; an opportunity to sit beside the river, quietly to observe the hypnotic current as it rippled and eddied. A rare chance to enjoy the spring flowers blooming, watch the wind scurry through the trees or the rain moving across the sky in banks of shape-changing cloud. He had rediscovered things from childhood that he had forgotten – fishing, riding for the pleasure of it, the marvel of new life on a farm: lambs, calves, chicks and piglets. The pace of a freeborn farmer directed by the cycle of nature had suddenly appealed, although Harold was aware that without adequate gold, such a living could be harsh. There was always work to be done – hard work – on the land, from dawn till dusk, through all weathers, all seasons. A peasant relied on a small patch of land, one pig, one goat, to provide his meagre existence; had no servant, no well-stocked barn or comfortable Hall. No fur-lined boots or cloak to keep out the cold of mid-winter. Harold knew all that, knew that the life he had been born to, of politics, leadership, warfare and government, to outwit an opponent, was the only one that he could follow. This pessimism that he was trying to hide from Edyth arose from a reluctance to return to the banal bickering of court and the tedium of pointless bureaucracy. 
The office of earl was a demanding role, and there would be much for him to catch up with: legal matters to make judgement on, charters to witness and sign. He had reliable clerical secretaries who had kept him informed of the more important matters, but the first few days back in London would inevitably revolve around endless meetings, discussions and decision-making. Edward would expect his full attention too; would have much to discuss. Harold only hoped that most of it would be important, not a surfeit of information about church building or hunting. Though Harold was always willing to listen to a recounting of a good chase, Edward had a tedious habit of repeating particular anecdotes. And then there were his numerous Norman friends to be tolerated. 
Naturally, Edward had brought his favoured companions with him when he returned to England and, naturally, some of them he had wanted to reward, but there were limits to the degree of honours presented to outsiders. Men like Robert Champart for example. 
No doubt the matter of Queen Emma’s removal would be high on the agenda also – his father’s letters had seen Harold informed of that particular sour turn of events. He agreed with Godwine that to humiliate the Queen had been a mistake – all rumour of her involvement with Magnus had proven unfounded – but equally Harold had conceded his father’s difficulty. If Swegn, damn him, had not been so foolishly implicated, then perhaps Godwine could have prevented the whole unfortunate business. Ah, but repercussions were bound to be swirling around court still…At least he had Edyth with him. She would be waiting for him at the end of the long days, with her happy smile and soft young body. 
The road they followed was level and well gravelled, with only the occasional pothole. Behind them it ran northwards up into the ancient Saxon lands of the North and South Folk and the lonely windswept swathes of the East Anglian fenlands. Ahead, the distant smoke haze that hung in a ragged fug over the city of London was visible for most of their journey. Much of the land to the northeast of London, now that they had ridden away from the forested ridges above the Lea and Roding valleys, was flat marshland divided by rivers and streams, the reed beds and isolated clumps of alder or crack willow occupied by waders and waterfowl. They had passed through hamlets such as Walhamstowe, Leaton and Stokæ, where women and children had come from their houses to wave and cheer; those working in the fields had halted their plough teams to watch the cavalcade pass by. 
The first thing that struck Edyth as they approached London itself was the height of its walls. The Roman giants, Harold told her, had built them to defend England’s most important town from harm. “No one can attack London,” he informed her with pride. “Not without the prospect of a long siege and much discomfort. London can only fall from within. When – if – the people decide to surrender.” 
And that, Edyth thought to herself, they will surely never do! 
They followed the banks of the sluggish Walbrook River as it trundled towards the Thames – and then they were at the Bishop’s Gate, riding beneath its echoing stone archway. Their escort, Harold’s housecarls and servants, bunched closer, their horses’ shod hooves clattering on the road that was suddenly no longer rough gravel but cobbled. The noise of the city was not immediately apparent, for they rode down through the Corn Hill, where not so many years past the wheat had been more dominant than the new-settled inhabitants. The hovels were beginning to encroach further out on to the few acres of open land, especially in the vicinity of All Hallows with its high-gabled, resplendently thatched-reed roof. The Londoners affectionately called it Grass Church, visitors and foreigners, mistaking the common-used accent, knowing it as Grace Church. The building squatted, serene, in the last oasis of peace before the bustle of the market streets of East Cheap. 
They turned their horses into the busy scramble – Edyth had never heard so much noise, not even at the autumn slaughter. She thought the old bull last year had bellowed loud, but this, this was incredible! Traders yodelled from behind their heaped stalls, men and women bawling out the attractions of their wares, haggling sharply and furiously with buyers, irritable with the slower minded, quick to strike a bargain whenever they could. A barrage of voices, high-pitched, gruff, cursing or laughing. Accents Edyth had not heard before, languages she could not identify. The riders passed stacks of wooden, copper and clay bowls; pewter ware; woven baskets of all shapes, sizes and forms. Stalls bright with colourful bolts of cloth, fruit stalls, meat stalls, wine and ale sellers. Leather and hides. Iron, wool…everything imaginable. She saw a black-haired person with skin as dark as a bay pony’s polished coat, another tall and fair with a bright-bladed axe slotted through his belt. This was the part of London where people headed, where trade flourished, where the gold and silver was made and paid. They came to London from all over the world, the merchants and the traders. From Denmark and Norway, Flanders and France and Normandy. From further away than that: Rome and Greece and the Holy Land. From Africa and Spain!
Women carried bulging packages; men humped rolls of cloth, sacks or crates and barrels. Handcarts blocked the road, while ragged children darted in and out of it all. Barking dogs, squealing mules, lowing oxen. Above the noise rose the smell of unwashed people all crowded together. Muck and filth clogged the road. Debris and animal dung mixed with raw sewage. Yet no one seemed to notice either the raucous din or the appalling stench. It was all a part of what made London what it was – the busiest, almost the most important port in all the world. 
Edyth did not know where to look first, what to see, what to hear. Her heart raced and thumped from the thrill of it all, her throat croaking a sudden cry of fear when her horse was thrust aside from Harold and the escort. The crowd closed into the sudden free space; a man, bent beneath heavy sheepskins, pushed in front of her. But instantly Harold reappeared at her side, his mouth grinning reassurance, his hand coming out to take the mare’s reins, to lead her quietly forward. 
They were through the press of the crowds and coming out on to Thames Street. More traders had set their stalls along the open embankment, fish sellers, pie makers – every culinary concoction imaginable. The river itself was no less crowded. Small boats and fishing boats. Merchant vessels with their high, swooping prows, flat-keeled boats with their single sails furled, moored against the oak timbers of the wharves or beached upon the clay reinforcement of the low-tide mud banks. Great sea-going beasts out of the water, some at anchor, others with oars out to manoeuvre against the water’s flow before the flood tide should come in upon them. 
Ahead towered the wooden structure of London Bridge sweeping across the river. Never had Edyth imagined that a mere bridge could be so wide or so long, nor that it could take the accumulated weight of so many. Surely, any minute it would creak and groan, and fall into the white-foamed water that was rushing beneath? 
The mare faltered as her fore hoof touched the timber, but again Harold was there, coaxing her forward. “I can see I will have to buy you a mount more used to these crowds,” he said. “As soon as I can, I will take you to the horse sales down on the Smoothfield market.” 
Curses and laughter emanated from the press ahead, a flurry, and a piglet, ears flat, tail bolt upright, ran squealing from between people’s legs, heading for the street beyond the bridge. Several men made to clutch it, one woman tried to toss her shawl over it, but it dodged aside, hurtling between the hooves of Harold’s horse. The animal merely snorted and sidestepped. 
“There is every kind of mount imaginable at Smoothfield,” Harold continued, as if nothing had happened. “Mares, geldings, ambling palfreys and high-stepping colts, destriers with quivering ears and proud hearts. Mind, there is many a rogue at the horse market – man and beast – but if you know what you are seeking you can find it, if you’re prepared to haggle the price.” 
A boy, a barefoot, ragged-dressed lad of no more than seven years, darted in the piglet’s trail, ripples of teasing and more than a few crude curses following in his wake. He dodged around the horses, leapt the last three strides from the timber bridge and scampered on up the lane to where astonished voices marked the animal’s route. 
Edyth had watched with growing horror as the pig narrowly missed her own mare’s trampling hooves – what if she shied? She had gasped as the boy almost collided with her mare’s broad rump, hardly heard Harold’s calm narrative of the horse market. 
Staunchly, she concentrated on looking ahead, telling herself not to look down, not to think of that mass of water below. Her relief on reaching the other side was immense, quickly overshadowed by the realisation that they had arrived, were at Earl Godwine’s London estate, his Hall in Southwark. 

Harold the King  (UK title)

I Am The Chosen King (US Title)
Amazon.com Paperback - on special offer at $6.80
Nook $10.94

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