Candlemas came. Frost was thick on the ground and the giants arrived at Bosham for his father’s feast, despite drenching rain. This was Harold’s sixth winter: at the center of a feast was ham and spiced cakes and lamprey pie. But it was not the same without Thorkel the Tall. None of them had liked him much, but he was a war-chief, a veteran, a leader of men who had known kings and his loss left a hole that no one else could fill.
Each winter took its toll. Each Candlemas there were fewer giants gathered in hall.
Eric of Hlathir’s ship was lost in a crossing to Shetland. Next Harold’s father went with the king to fight in Denmark and the hall was empty but for serving men and women, and their father’s reeve.
The women tried to brighten the Christmastide mood with food and warmth and bright cheer, but all the character was gone: the best story-tellers and poets, the bench-warriors, the men who had seen battle and lived and knew what it meant to sit in peace and eat and drink.
Gytha moved the family to Bosham when the frosts arrived and Harold and Swein spent their days exploring. There were many ancient paths worn knee deep into the sandy turf, where gnarled oaks thrived. The boys climbed these and looked for their father’s ships but day after day no sign of the well-stitched sails.
The gently breaking waves lulled the shore. The headlands bent out of sight; the grey horizon stretched their thoughts. The oyster catchers piped as they flew low over the waters. But they brought no news, the seas were empty, winter storms threw the mottled orange seaweed high up the beach, where the sandflies swarmed.
When at last Godwin’s ships did return, the boys were there to see the barnacled crafts dragged safely up on home shores.
Their father had his arm in a sling. He did not jump ashore. But lowered himself clumsily with his good hand. It took him a long time to push through the welcomers.
When he saw them, Godwin held his sons with his one good hand and kissed their heads. To their mother he said, ‘This is the lad.’
He pushed a dark-haired boy forward. The boy was about Harold’s age. He had curly dark hair and large blue eyes, as pale as a clear winter’s sky when the first stars begin to gleam.
Harold’s mother bent forward. ‘Welcome child!’
The boy nodded but said nothing. It was like he was staring out to where sky and earth met.
‘I am Gytha. Your father was my brother. We were born of the same mother. You will be a son to me. My children will be your brothers: here, this is Swein. This is Harold.’ She put a hand on each of their heads and pushed them forward, and only then did the lad turn to look at them. His eyes were pale and blue and still as reflected light on a winter mere. ‘This is Beorn,’ she said.
The boy said nothing.
‘He’s been like this all the way,’ Godwin commented.
Harold barely heard the grown-up talk. He was amazed by Beorn’s eyes, even more so because his eyebrows were as thick and dark and curly as his hair. But when they were done, his mother took his arm and said, ‘Swein, Harold. Beorn Ulfson is my brother’s-son. Now he is your brother.’