I so love being a host for The Coffee Pot Book Club! Today I bring you an excerpt from MJ Porter book! But first, let's check out the blurb:
Lady Estrid: A Novel of Eleventh Century Denmark
By MJ Porter
While I eat, I study him. When I last saw him, he and Harald argued so fiercely that Cnut was forced to leave Denmark with his ship-men, and no means of supporting them. I know that they found and forged a settlement in Norway. I also know that he left his pregnant wife behind, in Gainsborough. But, I don’t expect to see Lady Ælfgifu and her sons here. My brother has, like my father before him, found a second wife, while his first one still lives. That sits ill with me, as it did when I understood what my father had done.
I’ve never met my nephews. I should like to. Not that Lady Ælfgifu ever responded to my letter to her. I can only hope that it was received. I’ll probably never meet her to find out, and I don’t want to ask Cnut. He would accuse me of meddling.
And then a shape materialises before me, and I look upwards and realise, even in the shadows and flickering flames, that Edward, Alfred and Godgifu don’t take after their mother after all.
Yet, I examine her all the same. Her features are sharp, no sense of softness to her, her eyes piercing, even in the dim lighting. I expected my brother to have a beautiful wife, but she is not, to my eyes at least, a beauty. Striking, yes, with her long blond hair, and rich adornings, I can see where Cnut gets the fashion from, but not a woman to arouse a man to desire.
“Cnut?” the voice is stringent, a demand, and I notice the curve of her belly and realise that she’s already ensuring her position as the mother of the Danish king’s heir. Cnut must find her in some small way appealing to have accomplished such a task. Was the child in her belly one of the bowed heads of my vision? I wish I knew, I truly did. It would help me understand what to do now.
“Emma?” Cnut only slowly rouses from his introspection. “Ah, Emma, yes, I would introduce you to Lady Estrid.”
Her gaze cuts deeper than any blade, and her lips immediately purse as she recognises the name.
“What are you doing here?” It’s hardly a welcome between sisters.
“I’ve escaped from your brother’s court. He had no intention of marrying me. It seems he was already contracted to marry another.” I voice the words in an echo of her tone. I need her to know that while she might be my brother’s wife, I’m his sister.
“No, that’s not right. My brother will abide by his oaths. Return to Normandy, seal the marriage.” She might as well just add, ‘you’re not welcome here,’ to her complaints.
“No, no, my sister will not beg a man to marry her. She’s far more valuable than that. Your brother has made it clear that he doesn’t wish to pursue a further alliance between my family and his own.”
Lady Emma dresses in a loose-fitting dress, and yet it’s easy to see how fine the fabric is, draped over her growing pregnancy. It’s as though it’s alive, as it slithers over her. I know her age, but if I didn’t, I would think her younger. Certainly, she’s young to have children as old as Edward, Alfred and Godgifu.
For all that, her face is tight with rage, and it makes her unappealing, even as she rubs her hand over her belly, as though to ensure Cnut realises she’s to be the mother of his child.
“Return to Normandy,” Lady Emma continues, her tone almost wheedling. “I’ll send word with you, one of my loyal retainers will escort you. My brother will soon appreciate that he erred, and the marriage will take place and be consummated.” As she speaks, Lady Emma runs her left hand over Cnut’s back, as though to soothe a babe and once more, I consider just what has happened to my brother. I hope he’s not about to be made a fool of by his new wife.
“My sister will do no such thing,” Cnut’s voice is firm, for all he reaches out and holds Emma’s hand still over the bulge of her belly. “It will be necessary to find a different husband for Estrid, someone who appreciates the honour, as opposed to someone who either fears it or simply dismisses it as unimportant.” Emma’s eyes flash with vehemence, and yet she holds her tongue.
Maybe I only imagined who had the greater hold over the other.
I don’t much like talk of another marriage.
“I would sooner return to Denmark,” I interject, but Cnut is shaking his head, and the rest of my words remain unspoken.
“No, no, a husband for you can be found in England. It would be a waste to offer you to one of the few Danish jarls loyal to Harald.”
I think to argue, but in my heart, I knew that by coming to England, I would place my future in Cnut’s hands. I must be more furious with Harald than I’d realised. Not that many jarls in Denmark remain unmarried. My sisters got the best of the men, and I don’t wish to be tied to one of the jarls sons. It would be beneath me.
“I saw your children,” I say, instead of continuing to argue, perversely pleased to see Lady Emma startle at the announcement. Perhaps she didn’t expect it, or maybe she’s forgotten that she’s birthed three children already.
“My brother will assist them in claiming land that’s mine,” Lady Emma states, the words staccato, a worry behind them that I can’t interpret. “My father gifted me with several estates on his death, and my brother will honour my wishes when he’s able.”
I note that she doesn’t ask how they fare. An unfeeling woman then. But Cnut is watching me, caution in his eyes, and I stop any further taunts from escaping my mouth. I can already tell that Lady Emma is as callous as Edward, Alfred, and Godgifu made me believe. She’s all about ambition. I recognise it. Lady Gunnhild is the same.
A servant materialises from behind me, taking my bowl away, and bringing me a goblet of wine, rather than warm wine. I sip the fluid delicately, pottage and a hot drink, finally thawing me, the thick furs making my skin lose the cold, clammy feel of the sea, which has lingered because I’ve refused to wait before seeking out my brother in Winchester. I didn’t enjoy the sea crossing in winter. I would advise against it to any who asked.
Cnut also takes wine, but Lady Emma is offered nothing. I think she’ll linger, but abruptly, she turns to leave.
“It’s a cold night,” Lady Emma announces, the words reaching me even though her back is to me. “I’ll be waiting for you,” and the statement is strangely ominous, and yet Cnut makes no attempt to follow her, but instead sips his wine appreciatively.
“What of your sons?” I hiss, the words angry because I’m not sure that Lady Emma is the right wife for my brother, not at all, and I decry her lack of interest in her older children.
“They are well, in Northampton, with their mother, and her brothers. They’ll come to no harm.”
His lack of concern surprises me. They are his father’s grandchildren, their claim to Denmark is as strong as his own. I would have expected him to care more. And more, I think he’s wrong to be so passive about them. I might have gained his agreement that Lady Emma’s children in Normandy will remain free from his concern, but I’m not at all convinced that Lady Emma will offer his older children the same protection.
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!