Last Tales of Mercia 1: Emma the Queen

To prove her innocence of crimes against her own son, King Edward, Emma of Normandy must walk barefoot over nine scalding ploughshares and come out unscathed.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

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And this year, fourteen nights before the mass of St. Andrew, it was advised the king, that he and Earl Leofric and Earl Godwin and Earl Siward with their retinue, should ride from Gloucester to Winchester unawares upon the lady [Emma]; and they deprived her of all the treasures that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king, and also since …”

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 1043

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WINCHESTER

Late 1040’s A.D.

“Is the tomb secure?”

Queen Emma’s question hung in the air for a few moments, sending a coarse echo through the chilled stones of the underground hallway. The abbess of Wherwell, who had served as Emma’s prison warden before following her here to Winchester, blinked at the queen through tightly-narrowed lids. Abbess Mildred’s woolen wimple wrapped her hair and neck completely, leaving nothing but a small weaselly face to peer out at the queen. The manner of cruelty suggested by Mildred’s beady eyes never ceased to amaze Emma, especially when compared to the kind but sharp-witted soul that actually lurked behind them. Those same eyes now twinkled with a combination of daring and caution.

“I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘secure,’” said the abbess with her nasally voice.

Queen Emma stared into the flickering shadows of the Old Minster before her. Once upon a time, this hollow chamber full of shifting shadows and the ghostly echo of silence might have sparked her imagination and ignited many nightmares. Now, as an old woman of nearly sixty years who had seen murder, war, and treachery of every sort, she took comfort in such darkness and quietude. She could imagine little that would frighten her beyond what she had already witnessed. These days, she only feared that her own life would be forgotten, or—maybe worse—that people would remember her for false and vile deeds she never committed.

She sighed heavily, tiring of the game she must play, and at last replied, “By secure, I mean that my prayer will fall on friendly ears, and none other.”

“It is secure enough for that, my lady. Only the Lord and His own good agents will hear your prayers.” A smile cracked Mildred’s thin lips. “Of that I can assure you.”

“Thank you, Mildred.” Emma moved forward, her robes whispering against the stones.

“Stop there.”

A hard shoulder knocked Emma’s as a housecarl moved around her. Emma jolted, having forgotten the warrior’s presence. The iron of his sword flashed in the candlelight and his chain mail jangled with obscene loudness. Even now, after all the humiliation she had suffered, Queen Emma had not grown accustomed to the rudeness with which King Edward’s guards treated her. No matter what the charges against her, they should never forget that she had been the wife of two kings, and the mother of two more.

The housecarl continued his brazen sweep of the chamber, grabbing a torch from the wall and thrusting its flames into the shadows of the Old Minster. Eventually, he approached the tomb of Saint Swithin, Emma’s own destination.

Abbess Mildred’s piercing voice rang suddenly through the room. “May God forgive you,” she cried, “for your appalling disrespect for his holy ground. For I certainly do not!”

The housecarl stopped and turned, baring his grimy teeth. Emma gulped, recognizing the man as one of Earl Goodwin’s guards rather than King Edward’s. Some time ago that would have been significant, back when Edward still had his wits about him and recognized Lord Goodwin as one of his most dangerous opponents. Now Goodwin had slithered into King Edward’s mind like a snake through his ear, convincing Edward to turn against his own mother, while Edward continued to trust one of the most skilled liars in all of Engla-lond. Goodwin certainly shared some of the skills of his “great uncle,” Eadric Streona the silver-tongued traitor, even if the two were never really related by blood.

The thought of Eadric the Grasper seemed to transport her to another time and place, through a maze of lies and treacheries, into the miserable years of her role as King Ethelred’s wife, to the moment that Eadric changed the fate of the country forever …

Weighed down by the burden of her memories, Emma hunched into the embrace of her linen robes. A lock of her gray hair brushed her chin, having escaped the snug wrap of her wimple and crown. She let it stay there as a reminder of how her own dignity was unraveling. She preferred to huddle in the reality of her modest clothing than fall too deeply into her own mind. Sometimes, remembering the figures of her past felt like stepping into a room full of cobwebs. If she touched one memory, all the others would cling and pull at her until she drowned in their silky grasp.

“Lady Emma will not be able to escape from this room,” said Abbess Mildred to the housecarl, returning Emma’s mind to her current predicament. “We’re underground, for heaven’s sake. Can the poor woman not have just a few moments of privacy before she …” Mildred choked on her own high-pitched voice. She turned away, but couldn’t hide that her beady little eyes blinked back tears. “Before she must face judgment?”

Emma found Mildred’s pity more annoying than touching. The abbess had probably been about to say “before she dies.” Most people assumed that Emma would die tomorrow when she suffered her trial by fire. Emma wished people would have more faith in her innocence, which was why it was so important she prove it to them, even at the risk of her body.

The housecarl grunted and gripped the pommel of his sword, perhaps to remind them all of who was really in charge here. Then he heaved his big shoulders and replied, “True enough. This is as good of a prison as any. Stay in here as long as you’d like, then.” A cruel smile twisted his face as he returned to the door, nudging Emma through it, and then slammed it behind her.

The thud of the wood roared in her ears a long while. It was the last sound she heard before the silence of the chamber enveloped her mind.

Careful not to disturb the peace of the room, Emma moved forward, her slippers swishing ever so softly against the floor. She watched the candlelight flicker against the gold embroidery of her robes, making it glow as if with life. She glanced upon the faces of the statues watching her from the shadows, wondering how she looked to them. Did she appear to be a poor old lady about to meet her death? Or did she look like a grand queen whose weathered appearance was only an indication of all the hardship she had survived and overcome?

She nearly lost her footing when she noticed the sarcophagus of King Canute to her left. She paused and stared breathlessly at the burial place of her late husband. Then she diverted her path long enough to brush her fingers over the stones of his tomb.

“Lend me your strength, husband,” she whispered, and fought back the prickling of tears in her eyes. Sometimes marriage with him had felt like a voyage in a neverending storm. But she had always known he could man the helm strongly enough to protect the boat, as it were; and she had always trusted that he would not let her drown in the chaos around him. He had always challenged her in ways she didn’t expect, or pushed her to reach for dreams she would have otherwise left untouched. She had loved him for that. She had never known exactly how he felt about her. She had bound him to Engla-lond, as well as the Christian faith of the Anglo-Saxons. Sometimes, he had resented her for that; at other times, he had respected her. In the end, at least she knew that much.

Brushing away the bud of a tear, she turned and forged onward.

Eventually she stood before the tomb of Saint Swithin, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. Around the raised sarcophagus, the shrine twinkled with jeweled candelabras and a silken cushion. Emma knelt gratefully on the fabric, breathed deeply of the candles’ smoke, then exhaled her supplication.

“Oh dearest Saint Swithin, who performed sweet miracles for the lost souls of your lifetime, please hear my prayer tonight. Perform another miracle for me, our Lord’s humble servant, Queen Emma.”

She waited, peering cautiously into the shadows, and mourned the fact that her vision was not as sharp as it had once been. “Does my prayer fall on deaf ears?”

“It does not.”

Emma’s heart leapt into her throat as a dark shape arose behind the sarcophagus. At first she dared not believe her eyes: a human figure stepped forward, gleaming with the finest robes and vestments. Then yellow light brushed over his face, revealing its familiar features, and Emma cried out with unrestrained relief.

“Stigand!”

She forgot the aches of her joints as she rose up and rushed towards the archbishop—the man who had been her counselor and adviser for so many long years as a queen. The man who had comforted her when she struggled with the frightening temperament of her second husband, King Canute.

She forgot all rules of propriety as she sank against his robes, wrapped her arms around him, and rested her cheek against his shoulder. She felt her own wimple fall back, releasing her gray and yellow locks to brush against his face. She inhaled the familiar scent of him, sweet with incense, carrying only a slight hint of the musky man beneath the wool.

He hesitated at first, then returned her embrace, pressing his hands to her back. “Emma. It is not too late. I have found a champion to fight in your name. He is a skilled warrior, and he would easily—”

“No.” Emma reluctantly pulled back, meeting his golden gaze with her own blue eyes. His face was growing as old and weathered as her own, she realized, but this warmed her heart and made her smile. “That would not prove my innocence well enough, Stigand. I should be the vessel of God’s justice, rather than two men with swords, if I wish to demonstrate my purity.”

His eyes saddened. His hand reached up to brush back her hair. “And are you pure, Emma?”

She stiffened and pulled away from him. How dare he ask her that, of all people? And yet she knew by the weight filling her heart that he was right to doubt her. “My son Edward—or should I say his new friend, Earl Goodwin—accused me of three things. First, that I helped arrange the death of my own son Alfred.” She managed to say the terrible words without wavering, but afterward, she needed a moment to regain her strength before continuing. “Secondly, that I withheld riches from Edward in order to give them to his enemy, Magnus of Norway. And finally, that I had impure relations with Bishop Alwyn of Winchester.” She smiled sadly at Stigand. “He gets closer to the truth with each accusation. But of those exact crimes, at least, I am innocent.”

Stigand regarded her with an icy gaze. He was a soft man, well-fed and a stranger to hard labor, but his spirit could be as hard as steel when he focused it. The candlelight flickered against his chin, emphasizing the firm set of his jaw. The graveness of his expression surprised her.

“Did you ever doubt it, Stigand?”

“I …” He deflated and looked away, grinding his jaws. “I wondered about Alwyn, sometimes.”

Emma didn’t know whether to laugh or cry out with rage. Instead she made a torn sound of pure surprise. “Why would you even … ?”

His eyes met hers again, the regret in them cooling her temper. “I suppose I was guilty of the sin of jealousy. I could accept that you had to … withhold yourself from me, out of respect for the laws of heaven and your husband, King Canute.” The confession clearly required effort; Emma had never heard him speak so plainly of the temptation that had always hung silently between them. “But the fear—no, rage—at the thought that you might sin with another man … perhaps it clouded my judgment.”

“Oh Stigand …” She resisted the urge to reach out and touch him again. Mirthless laughter burst from her throat. “How ironic it is! I never felt tempted in the presence of Alwyn, so I was more careless. I didn’t go to great lengths not to be closed in the same room with him, or wonder what people might think if we took a long walk together. I didn’t hesitate to touch him or show fondness towards him, for I knew nothing would come of it. I suppose that is why someone like Goodwin thought he could weave a scandal from it. But with you …” She shook her head at the ridiculousness of it all. “With you, I must have seemed especially cold, for I was afraid that if I let any of the warmth I felt for you seep outward, it would melt my heart completely.”

The firmness of his face cracked. Emotion clouded his eyes. He turned his head and hastened to change the subject, but she knew what she had seen behind his mask, and it gladdened her more than she could express. “If you will not accept a champion to fight for you, then we must think of another way to save you tomorrow.”

“You’re right. It is only God who can save me.” Emma bowed her head. “I suppose it is not enough that I am innocent of Edward’s exact accusations. I must be pure in the eyes of God, as well. For the truth is that while I never deliberately caused Alfred to die, I was foolish to invite him to Engla-lond without being more cautious. I was even more foolish leave him in the care of Goodwin, the true murderer. And it is true that sometimes, even now, I blame myself for what happened.”

“Emma …”

She ignored Stigand and looked up at the tomb of Saint Swithin, hoping to draw strength from it. “Secondly, I did not save my riches especially for Magnus the Good of Norway, who would have waged war against Edward and all of Engla-lond. But I did withhold my money from Edward, and I did believe that Magnus would have made a better king than my son; it was almost as if Edward could sense that. Magnus once made a treaty with my Harthacanute in Denmark, showing fairness and patience. He also wanted to reunite the North Sea Empire under one king, as Canute once dreamed of doing.” She smiled sadly. “I used to think of Canute as conceited and greedy for having that dream. But after our many years together, I admired him for it. I admired Magnus, as well. More than I admire my own son, Edward, who now seems to love Normandy more than the land on which he rules.”

She turned her gaze back to Stigand, knowing that in order to purify her soul, she must speak to him directly. “And thirdly, though I never had impure relations with Bishop Alwyn, my heart did not always belong to the men who were my husbands.”

“Stop this.” Stigand surged forward, seizing her shoulders in his grip. “You should not have to confess anything, Emma. You should be free of all guilt, for you have done nothing wrong. If anything, you are only wrong for doubting yourself.”

She appreciated his faith in her, but she did not want it right now. “Then there is nothing else to do,” she said, “but pray.”

“That’s not true!” His hands moved down to clasp hers. His forwardness unnerved her, but she took what comfort she could from his grip, nonetheless. “Don’t you see? I will be there tomorrow, holding your hand as you walk over the nine ploughshares.”

Emma cringed at the reminder. She tried not to think about what she must do tomorrow in any detail; she tried to keep her mind as blind to the truth as she would be when it happened with a cloth around her eyes. But now she envisioned the horrible truth, and it made her weak in the knees. Nine large blades pulled from ploughs would be laid out on the floor of the cathedral. Moreover, they would be burning hot, lifted from the flames of a blazing fire. Blindfolded and barefoot, she would have to walk all the way across the cathedral through the path of the blades. If she suffered many injuries and those injuries festered, they would mark her as guilty.

She became grateful for Stigand’s hold on her as she trembled. She squeezed his hands tightly. “God save me,” she gasped, “I only wish there would not be anyone watching—especially you.” People from all over Engla-lond would gather tomorrow to watch her trial, she was sure of it. If she slipped and sliced herself on the blades, they would all witness her pain and humiliation; some might even revel in it. But the thought of Stigand watching her suffer so was the greatest injustice all. “Why must it be you who leads me over the ploughshares?”

“Because I volunteered.” The exhilaration in his voice surprised her. His eyes blazed into hers. “Emma, if you are willing to let me, I can guide you tomorrow. I will be holding one of your hands as you walk forth; a second bishop will hold the other. Our task is to keep you walking forward, so you do not tarry too long, or wander from the path of blades completely. But I can do more than that, if you let me.”

Initially, the suggestion affronted her. Did he advise a form of cheating? She should have dismissed the thought completely. Instead she found herself asking, “What of the other bishop?”

Stigand considered this a moment. “I’m not sure who it will be, but if my fears are correct, the other bishop may be Robert himself, the new Archbishop of Canterbury.”

A tendril of hate snaked through Emma’s belly. “He’s the Norman who suggested I undergo this trial in the first place!”

Stigand nodded reluctantly.

Emma shook her head at the ridiculousness of the situation. “How strange that I spent my childhood in Normandy, then my adolescence in Engla-lond, and now my heart belongs to the latter kingdom. For Edward, I feel the opposite happened. He spent his tender years between youth and adulthood with his Norman relatives, and they have seized his heart until there is room for nothing else! I find it hard to believe that he has already made Robert of Jumièges the most powerful man of our church. But I suppose I cannot deny it forever.”

Stigand bowed his head in affirmation. “Several other Norman lords now hold positions of power in Engla-lond. But that is not our concern now, Emma. You can do nothing about it until we have restored you to your former status.”

“You are right about that.” She met his gaze fearlessly. “So tell me what you have in mind.”

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She felt brave until the blindfold wrapped around her eyes.

Until that moment, she conducted herself with the utmost dignity and courage. She strode into the wondrous nave of Winchester Cathedral. She faced the roiling crowds of laymen, bishops, and nobles. She stared down her son from the other side of the room; she could not see him well now, but she knew his face well enough to imagine it. The crown would be weighing heavily upon his gentle face, golden hair, and lanky limbs. He would frown a little to see that his mother had chosen to go through with this dangerous trial, though he still believed her guilty. Then he would listen to the whisper of Archbishop Robert in his ear, that foul Norman, and his frown of concern would become a scowl of condemnation.

The crowds were even denser than she’d expected. Bodies stuffed the church in every corner she looked. More strained to watch through the windows and doorway. Their murmuring voices created a roar in her ears that grated down her bones. Her head grew dizzy as her eyes searched the multitude, trying to find a familiar face.

Then she saw Stigand, and all her courage returned to her.

Archbishop Robert called the mob to order and read to them her charges. The crowd surged with rage at each accusation, especially the last, claiming that she’d had impure relations with Bishop Alwyn. “May she cross four ploughsares to prove her own innocence,” said the Norman, “and five more to prove Bishop Alwyn’s.”

The congregation rumbled with a combination of assent and discontent. It warmed her heart that at least a few who had gathered here today did so to cheer for her. Nonetheless, she was gladder still when the room went silent as she stepped forward.

“My king and son,” she said, staring down the nave of the church to King Edward. As the entire audience went still, her voice reverberated down the stone walls, demanding the attention of every living creature in earshot. “I, Emma, who bore and brought you forth—as well as my dear son Alfred—invoke God to bear witness to me this day. May I perish if what has been charged against me ever even entered my mind.”

Her guilt slammed her stomach after that last line. She referred primarily to the charge of murdering Alfred. As for the other crimes … perhaps she had considered supporting Magnus at one time or another. Perhaps her heart had strayed temporarily from her husbands. But she remembered her conversation with Stigand, and this gave her strength. She had done nothing she regretted. And in the end, it would be God who judged her today; not Edward. Only God knew her heart and soul, and only God could judge her accordingly.

Servants finished sweeping the nave of the church of any and all debris. Then King Edward waved his hand, and in walked monks carrying the nine ploughshares, each glowing red with the heat of the fires from with they’d been plucked.

Even then, Emma stayed strong. A bishop standing next to her gently took hold of her and turned her around so that she would not see the placement of the blades. She heard the scraping of the hot iron as it slid over the pavement. Her heart raced against her ribcage, but she took a deep breath and calmed herself. She knew that even though the blades would lie very close to each other, there would be at least a small amount of space between them—barely enough to walk through unscathed, if everything went according to plan.

She reached up and peeled off her outer robes until she stood in nothing but a soft linen shift. She pulled off her shoes and pressed her bare skin to the cold grains of the floor. A little chill went through her, but she stifled it with her resolve.

Then the monks wrapped the cloth around her eyes, plunging her into darkness, and her fear rose up to suffocate her.

Her heart thundered in her ears. Her knees threatened to buckle. Two hands grabbed her shoulders and turned her back around. Her frantic imagination rushed to occupy the darkness of the blindfold with the most terrible visage of what lay ahead. She saw herself stepping onto the blades and scorching her flesh. She heard herself screaming and tumbling and tearing her feet to shreds as she hastened to run over the remaining ploughshares. She imagined the people laughing, or else cheering for justice and her ongoing demise. She swallowed back a whimper before it could resound from her throat.

Then a soft touch brushed her right hand, and even though she could not see him, she knew who it was. Stigand. She squeezed back against his fingers.

“Are you ready?” he asked her quietly.

Before she could respond, another grip seized her left hand and yanked her forward.

She doubted it was Archbishop Robert himself, though it might as well have been. When she last saw her Norman enemy, he had been standing next to the king, eager to witness her humiliation. He must have decided he would rather witness her trial and deal judgment upon her than lend a hand to her demise. He had probably sent a bishop as equally dedicated to her failure as himself to lead her over the blades.

Stigand could only slow down the pace so much as they proceeded forward. Emma could already feel herself tripping over her reluctant feet. Why were her legs so stiff? She had felt courageous only a moment ago. Now she knew that she walked towards her doom, and it required all of her willpower not to pull away from the bishops and run as fast as she could from the cathedral.

A roaring sound filled her mind, and at first she thought this was her own terror, deafening her as equally as she was already blinded. Then she discerned people’s voices amidst the cacophony and, after that, words.

“Long live Emma!”

“God save our Queen!”

She knew that not everyone yelled in her favor, but perhaps God allowed her to hear the people who did, and this gave her enough courage to continue. She managed not to stumble as the unknown bishop gave her another tug forward. She felt the heat of the blades warming the air near her toes, and she knew she was about to step upon them. She must not lose heart now, though another tremble shook her knees.

The voices fed her strength. She lifted one foot and prepared to place it forward. Stigand tugged her little finger. She lifted her face heavenward even as she rotated her raised foot slightly left. “Oh God,” she said aloud, “who saved Susannah from the malice of the wicked elders, and the three children from the furnace of fire, save me from the fire prepared for me, for the sake of your holy servant Swithin.”

Then she planted her foot on the ground and her skin met stone.

Sounds of lamentation arose from the crowd, making her wonder if she had actually stepped upon a blade while her own shock and denial kept her from realizing it. Then she felt the sting of hot metal brushing her ankle, and she knew she judged her situation correctly. She had stepped into a safe crack between the blades, so small that she probably seemed to stand upon the scorching iron to everyone watching.

She lifted her other foot while listening to the ongoing moans of the congregation. They were so certain of her peril that they did not watch her closely enough. Either way, their concern for her came as a great encouragement. She would prove herself today, not only for her own sake, but for those who still loved her.

Stigand gave her wrist a slight push upward.

Her foot came down again, and the bishop’s tug on her left hand gave her no time to second-guess herself. She pushed her foot a little further forward then sank her weight onto the leg.

When she realized that she had stepped into safety once more, she nearly cried out with triumph. She felt like she could float into the air with glee. She had altered her movement exactly as needed, almost as if an angel guided her.

But an angel did not guide her. Stigand did.

Last night, they had gone over his plan in great detail. Stigand had figured out a way to hold her hand and make small movements with his fingers—such as squeezing one part of her hand, or pulling another—that would indicate whether to move her foot forward, left, right, or backwards as she took each step. He had gone over it with her again and again, even practicing it with her, until the movements felt like second nature.

At one point while they practiced, Emma felt so elated by the growing taste of victory that she allowed herself to fall back into Stigand’s arms, listen to his deep breathing, and look up so that her cheek brushed his chin. A jolt of heat rushed through her, so intense she felt like a young woman again, meeting King Canute for the first time. But this man was not Canute. This was a man she cared for even more.

Stigand had stiffened suddenly, perhaps sensing her change of mood, and looked away from her. His touch had grown cold. “I think we’ve practiced enough,” he said. “Perhaps we should pray now.”

And so they had. They had prayed and prayed, or at least gone through the motions of doing so. For once, despite all the riches and holy items that Emma had bestowed upon this cathedral and many others, she could not put her heart in the act. She could only think of Stigand, and during the few moments in which she prayed sincerely, she found herself thanking God for sending him.

Now, standing amidst the burning ploughshares, Emma remembered the graveness of Stigand’s voice and wondered if she should have paid heed to it. She had sensed, for a moment, that he felt ashamed of what he was doing. Ashamed that he cared so much for Emma. Ashamed that he would come up with a dishonest scheme like this in order to save her.

Then the guilt seized her too, and it did so all at once, like a fist closing in her stomach. She wobbled where she stood. The monk on her left gave her another yank forward. Then she found herself stumbling.

After that, her mind disconnected from her body. Perhaps it foresaw the demise of her flesh and retreated prematurely to the spiritual realm. She did not know how else to describe the moment she ceased to feel anything and yet her feet kept moving forward.

She saw flashing fire. She heard screams and shouts. Smoke billowed and revealed shadows amidst the orange light. The shadows took the shape of horses, riders, and slashing swords. She saw blood spatter and footmen fall.

She looked down and saw that she walked on dead bodies. She wanted to scream, but her fear petrified her. She felt someone squeeze her hand—Stigand?—and so she kept moving.

The smoke cleared and ahead of her she saw a Norman castle looming over the landscape. Anglo-Saxons did not build fortresses like this one; its stone keep towered high on a motte above the valleys of Engla-lond, and from that stretched a large bailey barricaded with walls and palisades. From this castle, all the blood flowed in swollen rivers to fill the pastures below. She looked down and saw that she now stood in the blood, and its level rose quickly to drown her.

At last she panicked. She tried to escape, thrashing with her limbs. Hands gripped each of her arms and held her in place.

Then she remembered reality. She realized that she did not swim in blood, but still walked between two bishops. She did not tread upon dead bodies. In fact, she felt cool stones under the bare skin of her feet.

The bishops released her arms. She turned her head in puzzlement, though she still could not see.

“Where are the rest of the ploughshares?” she asked.

Gasps echoed around the room. Soft hands grabbed her blindfold and untied it.

Emma looked upon the face of Stigand. Relief and wonder shone in his eyes. “You passed them all,” he breathed, his voice almost a whisper.

The room erupted with cheers, applause, and cries of astonishment. Now that she could see again, the ocean of faces surrounding her was dizzying: nobles, peasants, monks, and laymen filled the entire cathedral with rejoicing. Each one wept for joy, laughed with relief, or prayed with humility.

A single groan of sorrow resounded louder than all the rest, and Emma turned to find her son as the source. Now that she had crossed the path of ploughshares, Emma stood only a few steps away from him. King Edward had fallen from his chair to kneel on the floor, tears trickling down his pale cheeks and into his blond beard.

“Mother,” he cried. “Forgive me.”

Seeing him this way, Emma might have expected to feel relief. Instead, rage poured through her veins. God may have proven her innocent of her crimes. But Edward was still king of Engla-lond. And now he groveled at her feet like the weak, cowardly child she had always feared him to be.

“I will forgive you,” she said, “when you correct your mistakes, and cast our enemies from your court.”

The roar of the congregation had not ceased. Her voice was nearly lost in the tumultuous jubilation. But a few people around Edward frowned at her—people she recognized all too well. The pot-bellied Earl Goodwin stood amongst them, the man truly responsible for the murder of her son Alfred. Archbishop Robert, the judge of her trial, had slinked into a corner and lost the will to speak. A few Anglo-Saxon thegns lingered nearby, but sticking out like a rock amidst jewels sat the large Richard FitzScrob, folding his legs in an awkward attempt to hide his crooked feet. Emma faintly recalled that this was one of the many Norman lords Edward had brought with him to Engla-lond and given a great spread of land on which to make his mark—and perhaps to build a castle.

Of a sudden her vision returned to her, and she felt the urgent need to express it. Perhaps if she had been more patient, she would have waited for the noise of the crowd to fade somewhat. But Edward could hear her, at least, and right now that was all that seemed to matter.

“I saw something as I walked over the ploughshares,” she rasped. “I saw the Normans taking over Engla-lond. I saw their castles sprouting across the land, like weeds watered by blood. I saw their knights cutting down Anglo-Saxons and ruining the soil. Your people will die by the thousands if you let the Normans take root here.”

Edward’s eyes were huge with astonishment. The tears on his cheeks had dried, stale atop his gaping face. When he made that expression, he reminded her of his foolish father, King Ethelred.

Archbishop Robert swept forward suddenly, reaching out to Emma. She flinched but did not draw away as his hand brushed her forehead.

“Dear Queen,” he said calmly, “God saved your body from harm, but I fear the trial has exhausted your mind and left you feverish.”

She wanted to argue with him, but she worried he was right to some degree, for she swayed on her feet and could not come up with a good response. The din of the audience was fading now, but she remained dizzy, a strange ringing in her ears even as the room grew quiet. She was faintly aware of Edward and Robert nodding to each other, then the king straightening up though he remained on his knees.

“Mother,” he said, “God has clearly saved you today. I admit to all of Engla-lond that I was wrong to suspect you of crimes that will never be mentioned again. Please help me atone for my mistake by striking me, once for each wrongful accusation brought upon you.”

He motioned to a bishop carrying a long wooden wand. The bishop handed it to the queen. As Emma took it in her hands, Edward turned and bowed his head, presenting his back to her.

The entire room was watching Queen Emma now, listening to her every breath. Why had they not been listening a moment ago, when she needed them to hear about her vision? Feeling more and more light-headed, she looked to Stigand for comfort, but his face was pale and drawn. His eyes flicked to the king, suggesting that she should carry on with her task.

Her anger returned to her and she poured it into the wooden wand, lifting it high and then slapping it against her son’s back. As she struck him, she thought of all men who had wrought ruin upon Engla-lond with their incompetence and insecurity, the worst of which being her first husband of fourteen years, King Ethelred. When she struck him a second time, then a third, she thought of King Canute, the man who came the closest to forging Engla-lond into a powerful empire, and whose legacy would soon be snuffed out by her own son with King Ethelred.

When she finished, the wand fell from her fingertips with a clatter against the stones. She stood there awhile, trembling. Then King Edward rose up, favoring his aching back, and turned to embrace her.

“It is finished,” he said, and wrapped his arms around his mother.

Emma stood prisoner in Edward’s embrace as her eyes locked with Lord Richard FitzScrob of Normandy behind him. She considered it futile to tell Edward that he was wrong, and that he had not yet finished paying for his mistakes.

*

In the cloister of Saint Mary of Winchester, Emma often managed to forget the troubles of her past and the haunting visions of her future. She sat in the garden on a warm summer day and felt the sunshine easing the aches of her aging joints. She listened to the music of the birds and the soft whisper of the wind through the trees. The sound of singing nuns echoed from the nearby church and she hoped they did not resent her absence. She silently thanked them for their discretion; when she felt the need to wander off on her own or entertain visitors, they did not question her.

A shadow fell over her and scattered the warmth of the sun from her face. But she smiled, for the man standing before her was Stigand, and she reached up to grip his hand.

“Archbishop,” she said softly, straining to make out his face within the stark silhouette. “Why did you wait so long to visit me?”

His hand squeezed back against her, but his voice carried discomfort. “Because it is unseemly for a man to step foot in a convent.”

“Never mind that.” Smiling recklessly, she yanked his hand hard, drawing him next to her on the bench. “If they question my ‘innocence,’ let them put me to another test.”

She had meant to lighten the mood, but as Stigand settled next to her, a frigid silence fell over them. The memory of the trial of ploughshares was one of her least favorites to revisit, and she had not meant to bring it up so soon.

They sat quietly for a time, acknowledging the gravity of all the memories shared between them, their many discussions of old, and the few words yet unspoken.

“Emma,” he said at last. She turned to look at him, noting the bags under his eyes, the drooping of the skin around his lips. Nonetheless, his nose still cut a handsome line, and his gaze shone with vigor. “I have come to ask your forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness?” She attempted a laugh. “Whatever for?”

He looked down at his clasped hands, wringing them over the soft folds of his robes. “When I came to you the night before your trial, I acted selfishly. I could not bear the thought that you might fall upon the burning blades and suffer fatal wounds. I felt I must do anything to keep that from happening, and my fear blinded me. I tempted you to do something dishonest and sinful. I led you to cheat on one of the most holy trials of our Lord God in heaven.”

“Cheat! Is that how you see what we did, Stigand?” She grabbed his sleeve and shook it, urging him to look at her, but still he did not. “I think you are wrong. I admit, there have been times when I questioned our methods that day as well. But then I realized that if God wanted me to fail the trial, then he would not have sent you to lead me through the path in the first place.”

His breath caught and at last his gaze met hers, blazing with the need to believe her.

She smiled softly at him. “I feel no shame for what happened that day, Stigand. Please tell me that you don’t regret doing it.”

“Of course I don’t regret it.” His voice cracked in his throat; tears glittered upon his lashes. “Emma, even if I knew it to be a sin, I would have done it a hundred times over to save you. And I would have prayed that God would forgive me, if only because I acted out of love.”

Her heart raced. She leaned close to him and wrapped her hands in his robes, drowning in the comfort of his closeness. Then she kissed him.

By most standards it might have seemed a plain kiss, soft and simple, a brief moment of their lips touching and then drawing apart. But Emma knew it was one of the most passionate kisses she had ever experienced, and it meant more than any of her rigid nights in Ethelred’s bed, or even her most frenzied couplings with Canute. When she pulled away, her body was unsatisfied, but her soul was at peace. She glimpsed the same feelings reflected in Stigand’s eyes.

She sank down against him and rested her head on his shoulder. Together they watched the flowers of the garden sway with the wind while bugs hopped amidst the petals.

“There is something else that troubles me,” said Stigand after awhile, but his voice was soft, its tone contemplative. “I have never stopped wondering about the strange words you spoke when your trial was over and you stood over your son. You said you had a vision as you walked over the ploughshares, and that thousands would die if the Normans took root in Engla-lond. Edward seems to have forgotten your strange prophecy, but I have not. Did you mean it, Emma? Or were you merely saying what you thought Edward needed to hear?”

“I meant it, Stigand.” She dug her fingers into his robes, seeking warmth as a forgotten chill crept through her bones. “We may have faked the trial, but my prophecy was real.”

**

 Releasing NEXT (May 29, 2012)—

King Edward calls upon the lords of Engla-lond to protect him against the rebellious earl of Wessex, Lord Goodwin. Richard FitzScrob is a Norman lord who has only been in Engla-lond for a few years and struggles to provide military support. Eager to teach his son the pride and culture of their Norman heritage, he determines to strengthen his stance in Engla-lond no matter what the cost to the Saxons beneath him.

READ MORE

The chronology of the Sons of Mercia series is as follows:

EADRIC THE GRASPER (Sons of Mercia Vol. 1)

GODRIC THE KINGSLAYER (Sons of Mercia Vol. 2)

Last Tales of Mercia

EDRIC THE WILD (Sons of Mercia Vol. 3) RELEASING OCT 2, 2012

One Last Tale of Mercia will every other Tuesday until the release of the novel, Edric the Wild (October 2, 2012). For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as compiled by various monks until the year 1140, were my primary sources of information. So, too, were the Chronicles of Florence of Worcester and the Chronicles of the Kings of England as written by William of Malmesbury. Without the devotion of these men to chronicle the chaotic events of their time, so little of the Dark Ages would be known.

Special thanks to these additional sources for this story:

Hall, Mrs. Matthew. Lives of the Queens of England before the

Norman Conquest. Blanchard and Lea, 1854. http://books.google.com/books?

id=s4bRUwuluG8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

O’Brien, Harriet. Queen Emma and the Vikings. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. Print.

To view a full list of sources, read the right column of this blog page

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