King Knut came back from Rome when Harold was nine.
He brought back books and relics; distributed alms at the quayside, and again at the gates of Winchester.
The signs were clear. The king had been forgiven. The country had been blessed. The sins of anger had been wiped away, like spilt blood on a church floor.
Only Beorn could not be wiped away, and one day a visiting church men stopped at Godwin’s manor, and related things that he had seen on the pilgrimage. He spoke with tumbling adoration. How Knut had been received by the Bishop of Rome. How he had distributed alms to the poor in that city. How crowds had tried to prevent his departure from the city. How they would remember Knut’s pilgrimage for years to come.
The tales stretched on as the shadows lengthened, and sitting silent on the benches.
‘And what did the Bishop of Rome say to him?’ Swein asked at last.
‘The king can tell you himself,’ he said, ‘for he will be here tomorrow.’
Harold caught Beorn’s eye. No words passed between them. But as the serving men came into to set the fire for evening, Beorn was missing.
Harold found him outside, standing by the shore.
‘He’ll be here tomorrow,’ Harold said.
Beorn nodded, and weighed a stone in his palm, before flinging it out into the waves.
Knut was a slender man with reddish blonde hair, red freckles on his cheeks and the backs of his hands, bright blue eyes. CNUT REX ANGLORUM, the silver pennies said, but he had other names too: Gift-giver, Law-maker, Defender of the Church. The fawning monks simply called him Magnus Rex, Knut the Great King.
Knut singled Beorn out.
He put his hand to Beorn’s head, like a cleric giving a blessing.
‘We are bound by blood,’ he said.
Beorn nodded. Not just the blood they shared in their veins, but also the blood of Beorn’s father.
It was June. The midden flies were at their thickest. They were large and fat and noisy, and Knut stood and swatted one away from his ear.
Harold was watching the fishermen, who had brought in their wicker baskets, sorting fish into a pair of buckets: those for the lord’s table, and those for his small folk when a man walked up from the church. Harold felt the shadow fall on him and turned.
It was Knut. The tide was out and the wide flat space before him seemed to draw his gaze right out beyond the horizon, where the old wives said the world ended. Harold did not want to interrupt, but as he stood up to leave, Knut seemed to notice him for the first time.
‘You’re one of Godwin’s sons?’
It was odd how he said ‘Godwin’. It was affectionate, but almost how a man would speak of his favourite hound or horse.
‘I am lord.’
Knut forced a smile. He seemed to wait for something, but Harold didn’t know what it was and didn’t know what to say.
‘What’s your name again?’ Knut said.
His name wasn’t so difficult to remember, Harold thought, as everyone was either named Harold or Swein after Knut’s father or grandfather.
Knut smiled. ‘Harald,’ he said, with the Danish accent. ‘You’re the oldest?’
‘No, Swein was born two winters before me.’
‘Your father is blessed,’ Knut said. ‘What, he’s already been five times a father. And none of them have been lost.’
Knut was staring out to the ends of the world.
Harold looked the same way, to see what he was looking at, but all he could see were the distant gulls picking sand-eels from the mud-flats, and then the rising tide appeared as a sheen of silver on the dark mud, rippling towards them.
Harold and Beorn were growing so fast now that he barely had time to inherit kirtle and trousers from Swein, before they passed them, patched and torn, onto Tostig.
Their life was a series of adventures: riding with hunts, watching the warriors spar in the hall-yard, or roaming out across Earl Godwin’s wide lands.
The dark woods, ditches, hollows, meres and marshes that had once seemed dark and strange and wild had grown less frightening. Woods were good places to sit and eat out of view from their mother. Meres and streams were where the girls went to bathe, and Swein and Harold and Beorn heard the sound of them laughing and splashing and stole a quick glance of pale breasts and thighs through the leaves.
Only the old stone ruins at Fishborne still haunted them. They were covered in sheep droppings, and although no one ever seemed to go there, they stank of piss.
‘Those were built by giants,’ men said, and kept their distance.
And although they felt like ancient ruins, Swein and Harold had been taught letters by the monks, and knew that these were the houses the Romans once lived in. But war had taken their kings; chaos his people, and now ruin grew like grass where feasting had once been.
There was a spring there, and a stone-lined pool, and one day they heard that some village girls had gone there to bathe.
‘Let’s go watch,’ Harold said, and so they crept up through the ruins to spy.
They could hear the laughter before they saw the girls. Five of them. Village girls. The three of them lay down and peered over the lip of the ruins.
They could see the discarded clothes. The spread of hair as a girl ducked down under water, the curves of womanhood, a sight more beautiful than the night sky, or a pattern-welded sword, or an eagle taking down a deer in a single strike.
One of the girls looked up. She knew who they were and beckoned to them. ‘Come down princelings!’ she said. She was an older girl, standing sideways, up to her knees in the spring water. She turned to them and they saw it all: wet hair clinging to her breasts, a light thatch of hair between her legs. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen, but she seemed all woman to them. ‘Don’t skulk like serving men! Come,’ she said, and one thigh ploughed the water as she started towards them, ‘bathe with us!’
The three boys fled.