Wessex, England, 1050
Winter of 1050
The timber hall was huge, fully eighty feet end to end and twenty broad. Doors leading to the outside pierced both of the long walls midway down their length, allowing people exit to the latrines, or to the kitchens for more food, while trapdoors in the sixty-foot high-beamed roof allowed the smoke egress when weather permitted: otherwise the fumes from the four heating pits in the floor drifted about the hall until they escaped whenever someone opened an outer door. Many of the hall’s upright timbers were painted red and gold in interweaving Celtic designs; the heights were hung with almost one hundred shields.
Tonight, both painted designs and shields were barely visible. The hall was full of smoke, heat, and raucous, good-humored noise. Men and women, warriors and monks, earls, thegns, wives, and maidens sat at the trestle tables, which ran the length of the hall, while thralls, children, and dogs scampered about, either serving wine, cider, or ale, or nosing out the scraps of meat that had fallen to the rush-covered floor. The wedding feast had been in progress some three hours. Now most of the boiled and roasted meats had been consumed, the cheeses were all gone, the sweet-spiced omelettes were little more than congealed yolky fragments on platters, and the scores of loaves of crusty bread had been reduced to the odd crumb that further marred the food and alcohol-stained table linens, and fed the mice, in the rushes, darting among the booted feet of the revelers.
At the head of the hall stood a dais. Before the dais, a juggler sat on a three-legged stool, so drunk, his occasional attempts to tumble his woolen balls and his sharp-edged knives achieved little else save to further bloody his fingers.
A group of musicians with bagpipes and flutes—still sober, although they desperately wished otherwise—stood just to one side of the dais, their music lost within the shouting and singing of the revelers, the thumping of tables by those demanding their wine cups be refilled without delay, and the shrieks and barks of children and dogs writhing hither and thither under the tables and between the legs of the feasters.
In contrast to the wild enthusiasm of the hundreds of guests within the body of the hall, most of the fifteen or so people who sat at the table on the dais were noticeably restrained.
At the center of the table sat a man of some forty or forty-one years, although his long, almost white-blond hair, his scraggly graying beard, his thin, ascetic face and the almost perpetually down-turned corners of his tight mouth made him appear much older. He wore a long, richly textured red and blue heavy linen tunic, embroidered about its neck, sleeves and hem with silken threads and semiprecious stones and girdled with gold and silver. His right hand, idly toying with his golden and jeweled wine cup, was broad and strong, the hand of a swordsman, although his begemmed fingers were soft and pale: it had been many years since that hand had held anything but a pen or a wine cup.
His eyes were of the palest blue, flinty enough to make any miscreant appearing before him blurt out a confession without thought, cold enough to make any woman think twice before attempting to use the arts of Eve upon him. Currently his eyes flitted about the hall, marking every crude remark, every groping hand, every mouth stained red with wine.
And with every movement of his eyes, every sin noted, his mouth crimped just that little bit more until it appeared that he had eaten something so foul his body would insist on spewing it forth at any moment.
On his head rested a golden crown, as thickly encrusted with jewels as his fingers.
He was Edward, king of England, and he was sitting in the hall of the man he regarded as his greatest enemy: Godwine, the earl of Wessex.
Godwine sat on Edward’s left hand, booming with cheer and laughter where Edward sat quiet and still. The earl was a large man, thickly muscled after almost forty-five years spent on the battlefield, his begemmed hands when they lifted his wine cup to his mouth, sinewy and tanned, his eyes as watchful as Edward‘s, but without the judgment.
The reason for Godwine’s cheer and Edward’s bilious silence, as for the entire tumultuous celebration, sat on Edward’s right, her eyes downcast to her hands folded demurely in her lap, her food sitting largely untouched on the platter before her.
She was Eadyth, commonly called Caela, Godwine’s cherished thirteen-year-old daughter, and now Edward’s wife and queen of England.
The marriage had been a compromise, hateful to Edward, triumphant for Godwine. If Edward married the earl’s daughter, then Godwine would continue to support his throne. If not…well, then Godwine would ensure that Edward would spend the last half of his life in exile as he’d spent the first half (staying as far away from his murderous stepfather, King Cnut, as possible). If Edward wanted to keep the throne, then he needed Godwine’s support, and Godwine’s support came only at the price of wedding his daughter.
She was a pretty girl, her attractiveness resting more in her extraordinary stillness than in any extravagant feature. Her glossy brown hair, currently tightly braided and hidden under her silken ivory veil (which itself was held in place by a golden circlet of some weight, which may have partly explained why Caela kept her face downward facing for so much of the feast), was one of her best features, as were also her sooty-lashed, deep blue eyes and her flawlessly smooth white skin. Otherwise her features were regular, her teeth small and evenly spaced, her hands dainty, their every movement considered. Caela was dressed almost as richly as her new husband: a heavily embroidered blue surcoat, or outer tunic, over a long, crisp, snowy linen under tunic embroidered with silver threads about its hem and the cuffs of its slim-fitted sleeves. Unlike her husband and her father, however, Caela wore little in the way of jeweled adornment, save for the gold circlet of rank on her brow and a sparkling emerald ring on the heart finger of her left hand.
Edward had shoved it there not four hours earlier during the nuptial mass held in her father’s chapel. Now that nuptial ring’s large square-cut stone hid a painful bruise on Caela’s finger.
Caela’s eyes rarely moved from the hands in her lap—someone who did not know her well might have thought she sat admiring that great cold emerald—and she spoke only monosyllabic replies to any who addressed her.
That was rare enough. Edward had not said a word to her, and the only other person who addressed Caela (apart from the occasional shouted enthusiasm from her gloating father) was the man who sat on her right side.
This man, unhappy looking where Edward was sullen and Godwine buoyant, was considerably younger than either of the other two men. In his early twenties, Harold Godwineson was the earl’s eldest surviving son and thus heir to all that Godwine controlled (lands, estates, offices, and riches, as well as the English throne, which meant that Edward loathed Harold as much as he did Godwine).
Like his father, Harold was a warrior, blooded and proved in a score of savage, death-ridden battles, but, unlike Godwine, a man who also had the sensitive soul of a bard. That bard’s sensibility showed in Harold’s face and his dark eyes, in the manner of his movements and his engaging ability to give any who spoke to him his full and undivided attention. His hair was dark blond, already stranded with gray, which he kept warrior-short, as he did the faint stubble of his darker beard. He was a serious man who rarely laughed, but who, when he smiled, could lighten the heart of whomever that smile graced.
Harold was not so richly accoutred as his father and his new brother-in-law, although well-dressed and jewelled enough as befitted his status of one of the most powerful men in England. Like Edward, Harold toyed with his wine cup, rarely bringing it to his lips.
Unlike Edward, Harold spent a great deal of time watching his sister, occasionally reaching out to touch her with a reassuring hand, or to lean close and whisper something that sometimes, almost, made the girl’s mouth twitch upward. Harold had adored Caela from birth, had watched over her, had spent an inordinate amount of time with her, and had argued fiercely with their father when he proposed the match with Edward.
Some people had rumored that it was not so much the match that Harold raged about, but that the girl was to be wedded and bedded at all. In recent years, as Caela approached her womanhood, Harold’s attachment to his sister had attracted much sniggering comment. There was more than one person in the hall this night who, under the influence of unwatered wine or rich cider and who thought themselves far enough distant from the dais to dare the whisper, had proposed that Godwine’s flamboyant happiness this eve was due more to his relief that he’d managed to get his daughter as a virgin to Edward’s bed than at the marriage itself, as advantageous as that might be.
If one were to guess, one might think that Harold’s wife, sitting on his other side, had been party to (if not the instigator of) many of these whispers. Swanne (also an Eadyth, but known far and wide as Swanne for her beautiful long white neck and elegant head carriage) sat almost as still as Caela, but with her head held high on her lovely neck, her almond-shaped black eyes watching both her husband and his sister with much private amusement.
Swanne was a stunningly beautiful woman. Of an age with Harold, or perhaps a year or two older, she had black hair that, when unveiled and unbound, snapped and twisted down her back in wild abandon. Her skin was as pale as Caela’s, but drawn over a face more finely wrought, and framing lips far plumper and redder than her much younger sister-in-law’s.
And her eyes…a man could sink and drown in those eyes. They were as black as a witch-night, great pools of mystery that entrapped men and savaged their souls.
When combined with her tall, lithe body…ah, most men in this hall envied Harold even as they whispered about him (the envy, of course, fueling many of the whispers). Even now, sitting leaning back in her great chair so that her swollen five-month belly strained at the fabric of her white surcoat, most men lusted after Swanne as they had lusted after little else in their lives. She was a woman bred to trigger every man’s wildest sexual fantasy, and she was the reason why over a score of men had already dragged female thralls outside to be pushed against a wall and savagely assaulted in a vain attempt to assuage their lust for the lady Swanne.
On this occasion Swanne did not watch her husband or his sister, her black eyes trailed languidly over the hall, her mouth lifted in a knowing smile as she saw men staring at her, lowering frantic hands below the table to grab at the lust straining at their trousers. Swanne was a woman who enjoyed every moment of her dominance, yet loathed those who succumbed to her spell.
Among the other members of the wedding party on the dais sat Harold’s younger brother, Tostig, a bright-eyed, lively faced youth, and sundry other noblemen, earls or thegns closely allied with Godwine. But King Edward had a few supporters, two Norman noblemen who had remained at Edward’s side since he had returned from his twenty-year exile in Normandy at the young duke’s court, and the rising young Norman cleric, Aldred. Aldred had also come to England with the returning Edward’s retinue, and now he enjoyed a powerful position within the king’s court. Indeed, he had performed the nuptial mass, although most had not failed to note than Aldred spent more time watching Swanne than either his benefactor or the tender bride. Aldred was a thickset man who, having cleaned his own platter, was now leaning over the table to lift uneaten portions of food from the platters of other diners. A trail of spiced wine had thickened his unshaven chin, and stained the front of his clerical robe.
Aldred was not known for the austerity of his tastes.
He snatched a congealing piece of roast goose from the platter of a Saxon thegn, stuffing the morsel inside his mouth.
All the time his eyes—strange, cool gray eyes—never left Swanne’s form.
* * *
EVENTUALLY CAME THAT MOMENT WHEN GODWINE decided that the wedding was not enough, and that the bedding must now be accomplished.
At his signal (shout, rather), Swanne rose from her husband Harold’s side and, together with several other ladies, took Caela and led her toward the stairs at the rear of the hall, which led to the bedchambers above.
The largest and best of the bedchambers had been prepared for the king and his new bride, and once Swanne had Caela inside, she and the other ladies began to strip the girl of her finery.
There were no words spoken, and Swanne’s eyes, when they occasionally met Caela’s, were harsh and cold.
When Caela at last stood naked, Swanne stood back a pace and regarded the girl’s pubescent flesh. Caela’s hips were still narrow, her buttocks scrawny, and her pubic hair thin and sparse. Her waist remained that of a girl’s: straight and without any of that sweet narrowing that might lead a man’s hands toward those delights both above and below it. Her breasts had barely plumped out from their childish flatness.
Swanne ran her eyes down Caela’s body, then looked the girl in the eye.
Caela had lifted her hands to her breasts, and was now trembling slightly.
“You have not much to tempt a husband’s embraces,” Swanne said. She moved slightly, sensuously, her breasts and hips and belly straining against her robes, and then smiled coldly. “I cannot imagine how any husband could want to part your legs, my dear.”
At that Caela blinked, flushing in humiliation.
Swanne sighed extravagantly, and the other ladies present smiled, preferring to ally with Swanne rather than this girl who, even now, wedded to the king, promised less prospect of benefaction than did the powerful lady Swanne.
“But we must do what we can,” said Swanne and clapped her hands, making Caela start. “The wool, I think, and the posset I prepared earlier.”
One of the ladies handed to Swanne a small pouch of linen and a length of red wool, and Swanne stepped close to Caela once more.
“Now,” Swanne said, both eyes and voice cold with contempt, “do not flinch. This will get you an heir better than anything…save that wild thrusting of a man’s thickened member.”
She put a hand on her own belly as she spoke, rolling her eyes prettily, and the ladies burst into shrieks of laughter, their hands to their cheeks.
Caela flushed an even darker red.
Swanne bent gracefully to her knees before Caela and first tied the length of wool about the small linen pouch, then tied the pouch to Caela’s inner thigh. “This contains the seeds of henbane and coriander, my dear. So long as it doesn’t confuse Edward’s member too greatly, it will surely drive him to those exertions needed to put a child in that…” she paused, her eyes running over Caela’s flat abdomen, “child’s belly of yours.”
Again the ladies standing about giggled, but then came the sound of footsteps approaching up the stairs, and the rumble of men’s voices and laughter.
“In the bed, I suppose,” said Swanne. “He’s bound to remember why she’s mere once he climbs in.”
With that, the women bustled Caela to the bed, drew back the coverlets over the rich, snowy whiteness of the bridal linens, and bade Caela to slide in.
“We hope to see the red and cream flowers of love spread all over that linen in the morning, my love,” said Swanne, pulling the coverlets back to cover Caela’s nakedness just as the group of men accompanying Edward entered the chamber.
As Swanne and her ladies had done, so now these men, numbering among them Godwine and his sons Harold and Tostig, attended to Edward, divesting him of his jewels and apparel, and stripping him as naked as Caela.
Then Godwine drew back the coverlets on Edward’s side of the bed, and the king, his genitals pitifully white and shriveled in the coldness of the room, clambered into the bed and sat stiffly alongside Caela.
Once he was in bed, one of the men handed him a goblet filled with spiced wine and the raw, sliced genitals of a hare.
“Drink,” said Godwine, “and my daughter will soon breed you a fine son.”
Edward looked at the goblet, very slowly and reluctantly raised it to his mouth, made a show of sipping it, then placed the goblet on a chest at the side of the bed.
Harold looked at Caela, caught her eyes, and tried to smile for her.
Across the room Swanne laughed, rich and throaty. She pulled her shoulders back, aware that the eyes of most were on her, and splayed her hands over the rich roundness of her belly. “I wish you well, my lord,” she said to Edward. “I hope your screams of pleasure, as those of your bride, keep us awake throughout the long hours of this wedding night.”
Tostig giggled, and Swanne shot her young brother-in-law an amused glance even as Harold hissed at him to be silent.
As Tostig subsided, Aldred stepped forward, staggering a little drunkenly on his feet, and raised his hand for a mumbled blessing. Then Godwine said something coarse, everyone laughed (save Harold, who watched Caela with eyes filled with sorrow), and then Swanne began to direct people out of the room.
“Our king’s member can never rise with this many witnesses,” she murmured, to more good-humored laughter.
Swanne was the final person to leave. She stood in the doorway to the chamber, her hand on the latch, and regarded the two stiff people in the bed with a gleam in her wondrous dark eyes.
“Queen at last, Caela,” she said. “You must be so pleased.”
And then she was gone.
* * *
THEY SAT, STIFF, SILENT, COLD, STARING AT THE closed door.
Finally Caela, summoning every piece of courage she could, took her husband’s chilled hand and placed it on her breast.
He snatched it away.
“I find you most displeasing,” he said, then slid down the bed, rolled over so that his back faced Caela, and stayed like that the entire night.
* * *
IN THE MORNING, WHEN SWANNE AND THE REST OF the (largely still drunken) attendants pulled back the covers from the naked pair, there was a moment’s silence as the eyes took in the unsullied bleached linens.
Swanne’s eyes slowly traveled to Caela’s white face, and then she smiled in slow, malicious triumph before she turned her back and left the chamber.
Copyright © 2004 by Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd.