* The asterisk marks the point where the novel diverges from the history of our world.
1066...Then came William, eorl of Normandy, into Pevensey on Michaelmas eve, and as soon as they were prepared, they built a stronghold at the town of Hastings. This was made known to king Harold; he gathered a great army and came against them at the ancient apple tree. William came upon them unawares, before they had gathered; the king, nevertheless, fought very hard against with those men who would stay with him, and there were many killed on both sides. The king put the invaders to rout, slaying many thousands of Franks. *Eorl William's Bretons turned against their master and helped the king when they saw the battle turn. Although eorl William escaped the field, he was sorely defeated and many of his men lay now in six feet of English arable.
-The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Cold January winds whipped around the palace at Winchester, howling as they moved over and through holes and crevices in the massive structure. Inside, Harold relaxed in front of a blazing fire, listened to the otherworldly howls, and breathed a sigh of relief. He was finally putting his realm back into order after the invasions of the previous year. Hardraada lay in a mass grave with Harold's traitorous brother, Tostig, and the dead of his army, the only land which he was able to claim after his raid in the North. William the Bastard sat at his capital, Rouen, too weakened after his defeat at Hastings to pose any sort of threat to England for many years to come. Harold had already replaced the earls who had been killed at Stamford and Senlac Field in Hastings with his own men. Following his reconciliation with his final continental enemy, Harold and England could look forward to a time of peace which would be reminiscent of the reign of Cnut in the early years of the century.
A knock on the door interrupted Harold's thoughts. The king put his goblet of mead down on the table next to his chair and glanced at his friend, Aethelwine. Aethelwine motioned for a slave to open the door and shifted his leg closer to the fire. He had suffered a leg wound at Hastings, and although it had healed properly, the cold weather tended to exacerbate his condition.
The slave opened the door to reveal one of the palace pages. The young boy, it took Harold a few moments to come up with the name Eadwine, bowed quickly to the king and Aethelwine, before entering the room when Harold nodded in his direction.
"The papal legate, Hildebrand, has arrived in Winchester and requests an audience with you at your earliest convenience."
"Already! Damn, he made good time from Dover." Harold scowled at Aethelwine before turning back to the messenger. "Has His Holiness finally agreed to recognize my right to rule the English?" Harold asked, perhaps a bit too sharply. The page showed no reaction to the king's surliness. By now, most of the king's entourage knew that Harold had no love for the pope, who, three months after William was soundly defeated, still refused to drop his backing of the Frenchman.
"I could not say. The legate merely sent a message saying he was here and requested an audience with you."
Harold turned to Aethelwine, who had returned to his seat across the table. "Do we wish to have the papal legate interrupt our evening of relaxation?"
"I would imagine that this Hildebrand would wish to rest himself after the long journey from Rome. I hardly want to have some foreigner yammering at me in Italian or Latin tonight."
As Aethelwine finished speaking, the eerie howl of the wind dropped abruptly to punctuate his sentence with a sudden silence. Eadwine looked toward the room's windows and quickly crossed himself. Harold simply ignored the lack of wind and continued, filling the silence with his voice.
"Aethelwine, my friend, you have a good point. We've been relaxing here this evening. All Hildebrand is likely to do is take up some of our time to tell us that His Holiness has come to his senses and wishes to recognize my right to be king in the land which elected me and which I defended from not one, but two invasions. Since he will hardly be in an antagonistic mood, there is no reason we should hurry to see him." Harold turned to face the young page. "Tell the legate that we hope he had a safe and swift journey and we wish him a comfortable and relaxing stay in England. Extend my invitation to Hildebrand to attend my anniversary banquet tomorrow. He can help us revel and, at the same time, keep his priestly eye on us all to make sure we don't overindulge and go against the precepts of the Church." Harold's chuckle held just a touch of scorn. "After you deliver this message to the legate, find my brother and have him join us."
Eadwine quickly bowed his head to Harold and slipped out the door, carefully closing the stout portal behind him. As the iron latch fell into place, the slave lifted a pitcher to refill the king's now empty goblet.
The two men sipped at their drinks in silence for a few minutes as the howl of the wind picked up once again. Finally, Harold stood up and walked to the window. The wind blew his long hair around his face as it created knots which Harold knew would be painful to force out. The cold air caused the king to shiver, but it was also invigorating, and Harold stood by the window for a few more minutes before walking over to the fireplace. Cold and hot formed a nice contrast, he thought, as he warmed his hands and arms.
Turning his back to the fire, he faced Aethelwine, Harold's face betraying only business. "What do we know about this Hildebrand?"
"He is a trusted councilor to Pope Alexander. In some unclear way, Hildebrand was instrumental in Alexander's election. I also understand that he is reform minded and views the church in England and the empire as being horribly corrupt. I've heard rumors that he disagreed with Alexander when the pope sent the papal banner to William when the bastard rode against us last October, although I'm not entirely convinced of that."
At that mention of William's name, Harold felt his blood begin to rise. The Frenchman believed that two promises made to him, one by Edward and one by Harold, although under duress, constituted a rightful claim to the throne of England, despite that the witanangemot, the elective council, declared in favor of Harold. William, however, had dropped his claim, something the pope had so far refused to do. Harold calmed himself. With the pope's acquiescence, the last of Harold's foreign enemies will have accepted his claim to the English throne.
"Assuming we are correct and the pope has finally agreed to recognize us, how far do you think we'll be able to push Hildebrand?"
"I didn't say he was favorable to you, merely that I had heard he disagreed with Alexander over sending the papal banner to William, not William's right to England. From everything I've heard, Hildebrand is canny and won't be willing to give you anything he can avoid."
"Will I be able to threaten Hildebrand into making concessions?"
"Again, what I know of the man is only through hearsay, but I don't think so. Alexander hasn't had a rival since Honorius was anathematized two years ago. Even the Germans dropped him after 1065. If you threaten to support him instead of Alexander, the only company you'll have is the archbishop of Canterbury, and I hardly think Hildebrand will take that threat seriously enough to make even a few small concessions."
Harold nodded, "You're right. I suppose the pope's recognition will be enough to content me this Twelfth Night."
As Harold and Aethelwine drank from their goblets, a sharp rapping on the door cut through the whistling howl of the wind. The slave opened the door to reveal Leofwine, Harold's brother.
Leofwine was a tall man for a Saxon, and let his hair grow long in the back. His chin was beardless, in the style currently worn by the English, but he sported a neatly trimmed moustache over his lip. His deep blue eyes tended to draw the attention of everyone, no matter where he went.
Leofwine took long strides across the room to help himself to some mead and pulled a chair close to the fire. He dropped into the chair, took a long drink of mead and turned to his brother. Despite sitting by the fire, Leofwine retained the cloak he wore over his regular clothing. "Damn this cold weather. It's bad enough with the cold and damp in the spring and autumn, but these English winters are made by the devil himself."
Unlike Harold, who loved the cold and damp of his kingdom, Leofwine longed for a warmth which never came to England. Already, the two brothers had discussed the possibility of Leofwine making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem once Harold was secure on the throne, possibly even stopping to visit the pope in Italy as Harold's representative. Harold knew that Leofwine was already making plans to leave in the late spring. Although Leofwine had little, if any, call for religion, Harold knew his brother saw the pilgrimage as a means of escaping England's harsh environment for the warmer, drier climate of the Holy Land.
"Come, my brother, your blood is just thin." Although they hadn't been particularly close before Harold became king, they had learned to be friends in the aftermath of Hastings. At one time, they had only been two among six brothers. Now, three of their brothers lay dead and Wulfnoth, the remaining, youngest brother, was either dead or a prisoner of William of Normandy. Their ability to joke together had not come easily, but now that they had found it, they both relished having a surviving, and loyal, brother.
"My blood may be thin, but at least it is all still inside my body. To surviving!" Leofwine raised his goblet and emptied the golden mead into his throat. Instead of rising from his chair, Leofwine hooked his foot around the leg of the table and dragged it across to where he sat by the fire. When it was almost in his reach, Harold leapt up from his chair and grabbed the pitcher of mead from the tabletop to refill his own and Aethelwine's goblets. From the heft of the pitcher when Harold handed it to Leofwine, the earl could tell that he was left with only the dregs.
"BOY!" Leofwine's deep bass voice drowned out the howl of the wind and the slave jumped to his side. "Fetch us more mead."
The boy hurried from the room. Leofwine allowed a small smile to form on his mouth before he turned to Harold. "Now, what was so important you had to drag me away from my comfortable fire so I could be blessed by your comfortable fire? Aethelwine is here, so it isn't just a lack of company."
Harold walked back to where Leofwine sat and handed his brother his own filled goblet. "We've received word that the papal legate, Hildebrand, has arrived at Winchester this evening."
"Already! He only landed at Dover a few days ago. He must have had fast horses, and even then he couldn't have dawdled."
"How he did it is immaterial. The point is, he is here already. I've sent word that he shall attend tomorrow's celebration."
"That will certainly put a cap on your anniversary. Having the pope, himself, recognize you as king, as he should have done last Epiphany." Leofwine's smile suddenly flagged. "Who else knows Hildebrand is here?"
"As far as I know, just the three of us, Hildebrand and his retinue, any of the servants who have taken care of the legate's baggage, the townspeople who are billeting the group, anyone the servants have gossiped with, and anyone else in Winchester I imagine. Leofwine, this isn't exactly the sort of thing we can keep secret."
"No, I suppose not, but I would prefer not to advertise anything until after the legate has announced the pope's recognition."
Aethelwine spoke for the first time since Leofwine had entered the room. "Perhaps we can arrange for Hildebrand and his retinue to be put in some empty apartments here in the castle. Although everyone will know they are here, they won't be parading around Winchester to remind everyone of the fact."
"An excellent suggestion!" Leofwine banged his goblet down on the table, splashing mead across the tabletop as well as his arm. "At the same time as it keeps Hildebrand from the public eye, it will demonstrate the proper honor to the legate and the pope."
"See that it is done."
Leofwine walked to the door and opened it to find the slave standing in front of it with a large pitcher of mead. While the slave placed the pitcher on the table, Harold bellowed for Eadwine to get his steward. When the man arrived, Harold told him to find Hildebrand a place within the castle and arrange to move the legate and his entourage into the keep immediately. Turning back to his brother and Aethelwine, Harold raised the pitcher in a toast. "And now to finalize tomorrow's celebrations."