Sunday, 15 November 2020

Lady Estrid: A Novel of Eleventh Century Denmark

Lady Estrid: A Novel of Eleventh Century Denmark 

By M J Porter 

Daughter, Sister, Duchess, Aunt. Queen.

United by blood and marriage. Divided by seas. Torn apart by ambition.

Lady Estrid Sweinsdottir has returned from Kiev, her first husband dead after only a few months of marriage. Her future will be decided by her father, King Swein of Denmark, or will it?

A member of the ruling House of Gorm, Estrid might not be eligible to rule, as her older two brothers, but her worth is in more than her ability to marry and provide heirs for a husband, for her loyalty is beyond question. 

With a family as divided and powerful as hers, stretching from England to Norway to the land of the Svear, she must do all she can to ensure Denmark remains under the control of her father’s descendants, no matter the raging seas and boiling ambition that threatens to imperil all.

An excerpt from Lady Estrid 

My sleep is disturbed, and when I wake, I’m twisted tightly around furs and pillows, and I’m drenched from head to toe in the stale odour of my body.

My chest heaves, and I reach for and then fumble the wooden beaker kept beside my bed in the event of such awakenings, the water spilling noisily onto the wooden floor. I tense, expecting Frida to rush to my side, as so often the case, but she doesn’t. Perhaps she imbibed too much wine before sleeping. I wouldn’t blame her. She rarely lets down her guard.

This true dream is different from my usual ones, the tendrils of it seeping into me, even as I shake my head, expecting it to dispel. I almost jump from my bed, pulling my abandoned cloak around my shoulders to fight the cold that seems to permeate everything, as though the coldest of nights.

A moment ago I was hotter than a flame-forged blade, but now an iciness has enveloped me, and I almost find it impossible to put weight on to my feet because they’re so chilled as I swing from my bed.

I reach for my boots, slip them over my feet, fumbling in the small light from the brazier in the corner of the room. Only then do I turn and creep from my room, the creaking door overly loud in the depths of the night, when everyone sleeps apart from the huscarls on watch duty at the main door. I don’t pity them such a cold night. I hope the brazier is piled high beside them, and that they wear thick cloaks, gloves and hats.

I tremble again, making my way silently to where I know a water jug will be waiting. In the main hall, the gloom is less, because of the embers from the massive hearth that smoulders at its centre. A few snores greet my steps but nothing else. With a shaking hand, I pour water into yet another wooden beaker and drink it desperately, hoping the water will root me firmly in my body, entirely extricating myself from the dream. 

Only my eyes close involuntarily with the action of swallowing, and the scenes of my true dreams immediately reappear before my eyes. I’m gasping for breath as I seek a chair to steady myself, eyes fleeing open, hands outstretched, trying to banish the images that don’t want to leave me.

What is this?

Why is this?

 I crouch further into my cloak, facing the autumn-red embers as a way of holding on to the reality of the here and now. Only then do I allow the flickers of my dream to subsume me.

I need to see what’s terrified me so much that my heart beats loudly enough that I believe they might even hear it across the sea, in Skåne.

I close my eyes, my legs and booted-feet extended toward the warmth of the fire, and then I focus on one of the images that I recall clearly.

Two bowed heads, one blond, and one auburn, and behind them, an array of others. My hands rest on those heads, and yet another blond-haired head tries to force their way between them, as they kneel before me. Behind the bent heads, eyes watch me, little more than hooded flickers of blinding white from the gloom, the only colour caused by the irises.

I don’t know where I am, only that I’m the focus of attention.

I meet the first set of eyes, noting the green tinge in the strange half-dusk, half-night light where the colours of the day are polluted by what seems to be tendrils of the hottest forge, blue and white at the centre.

But the eyes draw me in. I know those eyes. 

And then another set joins those, the one pair green, the other brown. I would recognise those eyes anywhere; Cnut and Harald. Quickly, their gazes flicker to the three bowed heads before me, but my vision is filled with yet more eyes all fighting for my attention.

These I don’t know. Not at all.

There are many of them. Gazes peer from the creeping shadows, all of them focused on me. I resent the scrutiny. I don’t know all of these people. Yet I feel as though I should. 

If only I could see more of them, determine who they are, and who the three dipped heads belong to as well, their faces hidden from me.

My heart thunders in my chest as I try and focus on only one set of eyes, try to recall what so frightened me that it chased me from my dreams, brought sweat to my forehead, urging me from my bed.

The first to willingly acquiesce to my scrutiny seems to shimmer as a sudden spark of light reveals more than just eyes. I have the impression of long hair, tightly braided, and a smile appears to play on tight lips, satisfaction emanating from the body.

I see the fall of rich fabric around a curvy body, reminding me of my plain figure, and I realise that those eyes focus on the one head trying to come between the two of whom I already bestow my benedictions.

I sense, rather than see, a desperate need in that look, a desire to accomplish a great deal, and also something else that surprises me so much it casts the figure back into the shadow, and I’m left swallowing the sour taste of envy.

The next eyes to truly focus on me, wash me with their superiority and rather than seeing their clothes or hair, I see only a vision of a sea teeming with warships, the cries of two embattled sides drowning out even the sound of my breathing.

I wrench my head away from the gaze, bile in my throat and my stomach rolling with more than the gait of a ship in a storm. The grey haze of the future swallows a sanctimonious smirk, and then another figure appears.

I know what this is. It’s a vision of what will happen in the future only filled with too much for me to be able to decipher.

I’ve never dreamt of so much before. 

But one of those first sets of eyes draws me back, seeming to clamour for my attention.

Harald. My beloved brother. He stands apart from the other seething mass of scrutiny, I realise now, and I hold his green-tinged eyes, trying to understand his place in all this. But although his mouth moves, the sound of his words is lost to me, and I hear nothing, nothing at all, although his concern is easy to decipher. His soundless words are short and sharp, his mouth moving furiously through them all, a vision of his balled hands adding to the feeling of intense unease. 

And then his eyes shift toward Cnut, and abruptly I understand so much more.

Not that I’m given the time to let him know that. Far from it.

A new shape emerges, close to Cnut, and this is someone I’ve never met before, or at least, I have no recollection of having done so.

The image of laughter suddenly ripples through the air, more substantial than sound. Yet my brother welcomes this new visitor. It seems Cnut is unaware of the bleeding knife the man covers in his hand, or even his leering glance my way. And there is the suggestion that he’s just one of many, the others all cowering behind him.

Whoever this person is, I must stay away from him, and caution Cnut to do the same. The warning is clear to see. I wish I could see more, know who this figure is.

But what of Harald? He’s gone, no longer watching me.

A rattling sound in the darkness wrenches me back to the here and now. Sweat pools down my face, and then beneath my cloak, even though I shiver.

I peer into the gloaming, trying to determine if I’m in danger, or whether it’s merely the footsteps of one of the servants come to revive the fire, or the huscarls changing positions as they guard the main door.

My gaze skims the room, seeking into the secret places, the shadowed corners where someone could hide if they needed to, but I see nothing, my eyes rimmed with the light of my dreams, making it difficult to see well.

I judder, wishing I could banish the feeling of being watched as well as the lingering fatigue of my strange dream.

A breath of air passes over my face. My eyes turn to the door, where a slim figure seems to creep through the night, even though the door has neither opened nor closed. Only, the figure is insubstantial, merely a wisp and nothing more, and when the woman looks at me, I see someone I think I recognise, but I’m not sure. Her hair is white, clumps of it missing from her head, and I know what this is, and my hands clench the arms of the chair, as though I can use them to hold on to reality. 

I’m not awake. Not yet, despite what I thought.

In her wake, the wreath-like figure brings more wavering figures, all seeming to steal through the closed door.

She beckons to me, but I stay seated, wishing I could close my eyes but knowing that to do so would only bring back the other half of my dream.

What is this? Why tonight do so many visions torment me? 

Behind her, the woman brings my father, and I can suddenly see the resemblance clearly, even though I never met the woman, dead before I was born. This then is my grandmother. Swein strides as though for war, a grimace on his familiar face. His beard covers his chin as always, although now it’s shadowed with grey frost. 

I can see where blood pools from a wound in his side, and his face, although resolved, shows the strain in the white and blue that marbles his skin and touches his lips and eyelids. I gasp. I don’t want to see this. He’s dead. I don’t need to see the pain he was in before he took his last breathes.

And my grandmother brings more of the dead with her. I harbour a guess that the one man is my grandfather, his resemblance to my father too obvious not to remark on, although, again, I was born after his death. The great warrior, King Harald Bluetooth, killed by his son. He carries a wound as well, and the scent of rotting flesh suddenly envelopes me.

I blink, try and clear my sight, only for the eyes of my initial vision to seek me once more. I open my eyes wide, torn. Do I wish to see the dead or the living?

I swallow, rub my hands together, wishing daylight would break and the hall would fill with people, busy about their tasks. I need to be distracted from these strange hallucinations, and only the light will wholly banish the dead.

Marble hands seem to reach for my chin, and I move my head, keen not to feel the creeping flesh on me, and yet they seem to dig deep inside me. I turn aside, reach for my beaker of water, only to have my face turned aside.

My grandmother’s mouth opens, but no words pour forth, and the scent of her is disgusting. I want to gag, but I can’t, her hand holding me transfixed.

Where her eyes should be, there are bottomless pits, but I can’t turn away. The blackness of nothing beckons to me, a promise that if I follow it, all of this will disappear. 

But can I? This is undoubtedly a gift, isn’t it, to step aside from my future?

Or is it a curse? 

Still, the slack jaw of my grandmother tries to speak to me, but I swallow, yank my head away from her hand, trying not to hear the clatter of her dislodged finger bones falling to the floor, and I close my eyes once more.

No matter these warnings from the past, I need to see, and I need to know precisely what the future holds. I allow myself to sink back into the dream where a collection of eyes pierce me, all trying to tell me one thing, while others vie for my attention. I want to know. I need to know. 

Yet, despite my brothers being there, both of them, I now see, it is to the women that my gaze turns, time and time again.

I wish I knew who the woman was, her reaching hands floating through the air, as though she means to gather as much as possible, the one bowed head most urgent of them all. I open my mouth, as though to shout a warning to my brothers, and the three heads before them, only for the woman to laugh at me, the hint of menace intensified as her hands scoop up more and more of my vision.

But she’s not alone, another woman is there as well, and all I can detect is a huge belly, as though she holds a litter of puppies inside her, and not children at all. Her hand rubs the protruding bump, and more and more of the eyes flock to her, seemingly keen to be under her command. Amongst them is the man, with the sea teeming with warships, and another, who seems to go unwillingly. And yet another, who floats eagerly toward her.

My gaze slips downwards, and I shudder, for there are no longer three bowed heads, but rather, seven, with two others squirming between them. Who are they? What are they? I can’t tell, although it seems clear to me that I’m supposed to know who they are.

And then I blink awake, Frida before me, her face pale with the lack of sleep, the worry in her eyes making me blink back tears.

Her arms are around me, rocking me gently. All of my dreams are banished, and there’s only me, and Frida, and the light of day to oust both of my nightmares.

For all that, I wish I knew who the people who inhabited my dreams were. Without such knowledge, the horrors that I’ve endured are impossible to decipher.

All the same, I take stock of what I saw; the three bowed heads, my two brothers, and eleven others as well, a woman, a man with warships and another with a bleeding knife. I hardly know who the images represent. But I vow there and then that I’ll find them all. I’ll protect my brothers.

Even if they won’t thank me for it. 

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Author Bio: M J Porter  

I’m an author of fantasy (Viking age/dragon-themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest), born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since AD1066. 

I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!

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1 comment:

  1. Such a fabulous excerpt.

    Thank you so much for hosting the blog tour for Lady Estrid.