‘He’s not coming,’ Harold says as he stands with his brother, Swein at the curve in the track. They are looking up through open fields. The road leads to Winchester, but it remains stubbornly empty.
Swein is a year and a half taller than Harold, but even with his extra height he can’t see father either.
It’s been a warm day, but now the late afternoon light is cool and blue and fragile as stretched skin. Swarms of gnats, gold in the evening sunlight, hang in columns when at last Harold shivers.
‘Scared?’ Swein asks.
‘No,’ Harold says, but it wasn’t entirely true. After a long pause, he says, ‘I’m hungry.’
Swein is hungry too. ‘Come on then,’ he says at last and jumps down from the split-chestnut fence. They start back along the track. The rutted mud has baked in the weeks of summer heat, and now the puddles are dry and cracked.
It makes difficult going. They walk along the side, where the sheep have trodden the grass flat.
As they turn the last corner the light of the setting sun casts ripples of gold over the night-blue water. Evening is waiting, poised, all about them.
A maid calls out to them. She is sitting on a milking stool in the dirt of the yard. The trees are full and dark with summer leaf.
She is bouncing Tostig on her lap. Tostig is four or five, they are not too sure. He was not allowed to come with them this day. But now he is kicking to be let down and he slides off her knees and runs towards them.
‘Where’s the king?’ he shouts.
‘He’s not coming,’ Swein says.
Tostig looks to Harold, but it is true. They asked every shepherd and traveler and they all said the same.
No king today.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Home,’ Swein says.
‘Can I come?’ Tostig asks.
They do not answer, but Tostig falls in step with his brothers and takes Harold’s hand. The three brothers turn onto the dirt track. Bosham is a bustling manor with ship-wright, smithy and two herds of sheep.
But everything they see is plain as the lines of their hand. It is the change that they are waiting for. There is no fire lit in the main hall, but smoke is rising from their mother’s longhouse.
But it is to the kitchen-yard that they turn. One of the girls spreads her cloth out over the lavender bush. She pays them no notice.
‘Do you think he will come tomorrow?’ Tostig asks.
Swein doesn’t say anything, so it is Harold’s turn, but he doesn’t say anything.
Tostig tugs his arm for an answer but Harold is not thinking of the king anymore, he is looking for the cook.
‘Will he come tomorrow?’ Tostig demands.
Harold smiles, ‘Maybe,’ he says, and yawns.
That night Harold and Swein lie together with their mother’s retainers, while Tostig sleeps with his wet-nurse.
Harold was the second son of Godwin Wulfnothson and the Danish princess, Gytha. When he prayed with his mother he says Father vár es ert í himenríki, when he prayed with his father he started, Fæder ūre, thū thee eart on heofonum.
‘Our Father, who is in the sky.’
Brother Cuthbert, his father’s chaplain, told him it is all the same Father, in the same sky, and that He did not care what language you spoke to him in as long as you pray, and confessed your sins.
He squeezed Harald’s hand when he tells him this, so hard it hurt. ‘You should be a good Christian so that when your appointed time comes God will let you enter the Hall of Heaven, where the saints drank and feasted.’
Harold nodded and pulled his hand away. He didn’t like Cuthbert, or his Heavenly Shepherd. Shepherds were churls. They ate hard dark rye bread and slept in the barns with the sheep.
‘Maybe,’ Cuthbert told him, ‘but when Doomsday comes, the shepherd and the slave will be lifted above the mighty warrior, and seated at the High Table, at God’s right hand, and served by angels.’
‘He doesn’t like us because we’re half-Danes,’ Swein said.
‘What are Danes?’
‘The great people.’ Swein laughed. ‘The Saxons are the small people. Mother is a Dane. Knut gave her to father as a peace-weaver.’
Harold has heard all about peace-weavers. How a bride heals old wounds. Puts a stop to feuds between two peoples. And learning this of himself was a strange moment for Harold.
He saw the world differently after that. The Danes had gold, coiled like snakes on their arms. They sat on the best benches and were given the choicest cuts when the boiled deer was served at table.
One day he asked his mother about her and father. She rocked him back and forth on her knee. ‘I was seventeen,’ she told him. ‘Your father looked handsome enough. ‘Is he brave?’ I asked and the king said ‘He was my worst enemy. I lost many men because of him. ‘Then I shall marry him,’ I told him. ‘If he will have me. It was either him, or Thorkel the Tall, and I did not want that.’
Thorkel had killed more men than a whore could sleep with.
‘What’s a whore?’ Harold asked which made Swein snigger.
‘A whore is a woman who acts with no more shame than a bitch in the fields,’ his mother said.
Harold didn’t really understand, but next time he saw two dogs in the fields he thought he understood. It was hard not to see when everyone shared the hall at night.
He thought on that.
It was true that Thorkel ate like a pig, head down to the bowl of oat porridge, shoveling the food in, and mouth open chewing. But Harold never saw Thorkel with any woman, bitch, sow or mule, in the fields or not. And the truth was, Harold felt sorry for Thorkel the Tall because all the giants teased him even though he was taller than any of them.
Once Thorkel fixed his gaze on Harald and the look was like a wolf: wondering if you were big enough to eat. Harald froze, but the gaze passed on, and slowly returned back to his meal, and Thorkel scraped the last of his meal, and belched, and then the two pale blue eyes caught Harald still looking at him and paused for a moment.
‘What are you looking at?’ the man demanded, with the words his mother used. But he did not speak with her gentleness. He spoke like Brother Cuthbert and Harold blushed and turned away and ran to his mother, who was combing her hair, and he held onto her skirt, till she shooed him off.
‘Go out and play,’ she said.
But Harald was reluctant and she had to shoo him out.
Later that day he saw Thorkel riding along the shore line, his great shanks hanging almost to the floor, great mangy wolf hounds loping along behind him.
‘He’s only happy when he’s killing,’ Gytha said. ‘Man or beast, it matters not. There are many ways of making a name for yourself. It says all you need to know about a man, how he chooses to earn his fame.’