Authors: Joanna Courtney
For my husband Stuart
who’s always believed in me.
Sometimes when she closes her eyes and pictures that night, Edyth cannot tell where memories end and dreams begin. She wonders if she was enchanted. She was only eight
after all, her mind still shifting in and out of made-up worlds, but something about that night, played out in firelight beneath a million stars, still feels so solid, so very real as if, rather
than being befuddled by it, her mind became truly clear for the first time.
He looked like a king that day, Harold. Even in a simple bridegroom’s tunic of darkest green he looked like royalty as he stepped up to take the Lady Svana’s hand. There was no
gold in sight, just flowers; no parade of bishops, just a smiling monk in a sack-robe and bare feet. There was no betrothal contract, no formal prayers, no exchange of lands or elaborate gifts,
just the linking of hands joining two people for a year and a day.
‘No longer?’ Edyth had asked. Marriage was forever, everyone knew that – grumbled about it, jested about it, accepted it.
‘Only if we wish it,’ Lady Svana had told her. ‘Ours is a marriage of hearts, not of laws. If we cease to love, it ends.’ Edyth must have looked shocked because Svana
had laughed and said, ‘Fear not, this union will last to the grave – love prefers to be free.’
Those are the words Edyth still hears, like a fiddler’s tune played over that whole night: ‘love prefers to be free’, and they colour her memories a thousand glorious
shades. There had been feasting, on long tables stretched out across the meadow. Then, as the sun dropped, myriad lanterns had been lit in the trees and there had been dancing. Guests had whirled,
maypole-mad, around a giant fire that turned them into tumbling shadows and sent sparks of joy into the night sky until, finally, they’d kindled the dawn and it had all been over.
The next day Edyth had wandered, dazed. Her father had been scornful, covering up a sore head and any memory of the self he had briefly become – a self that had danced with his wife
beneath the stars, his daughter on his broad shoulders and his sons gleefully circling. Perhaps he had been enchanted too? If so, the magic had fled with the light of day.
‘Ridiculous paganism,’ he’d muttered. ‘What would the Pope say?’
Edyth hadn’t cared. She’d never meet the Pope, far, far away in some mystical city across the seas, but Earl Harold was here and despite being high up in the king’s council
where all was tangled rules and debates, he’d been content to stand on a hillside, head bared, and marry for love.
‘Fool,’ her mother had said. ‘What connections does she have? What influence does she yield? What use is she to him?’
Edyth had said nothing but it had seemed to her then that Harold glowed when he was with his handfast wife and that it was that glow, more than any gold or land or title, that drew people to
him. ‘Love prefers to be free,’ Svana had said and Edyth had carried that with her ever since. It had been her ideal, lit up by firelight and scented with meadow grass, and now, on the
brink of womanhood, she craved such a passion for herself.
Westminster, March 1055
usk was sneaking up the swirling eddies of the Thames, calling the men and women of King Edward’s England to their beds. Inside
Westminster’s great hall, however, no one was listening, least of all Edyth Alfgarsdottir. In a clatter of platters and trestles the formal part of the mid-Lent gathering was being dismantled
and for the first time she was to remain until the feast danced itself into bed. Anticipation spiked in her stomach and she pressed herself against a pillar, her fingers nervously tracing the
intricate carvings in the wood as she took in every glorious detail of the unravelling court.