rocks which were strewn around the side of the lake, their sharp surfaces softened by furs and bearskins. Prince John Azoukh sat nearby, within earshot, with Father Leo beside him. Leo knew that the story he was about to hear would not only be a saga of kingship for the young prince but also Godwin’s private confession.

Godwin had insisted that he tell his story in the open, looking north-west, where he could see the setting sun and, in his mind’s eye, England, the land of his birth. John Comnenus reflected on the scene, and how different it was from Constantinople. Here was tranquillity, without intrigue, mistrust or evil deeds; just nature and its eternal cycle.

‘Is it time for me to hear your story now?’

‘Yes, sire, I am ready. But understand this: it is not my story. It is the chronicle of another man — a man from a distant country and another age.’

‘But you are a legend — an invincible warrior. My father tells me that you carried the Talisman because you embody all that it means.’

‘I am merely a participant in the story. The Talisman has belonged to many men, but this is the story of a messenger, a man who carried it in search of a leader worthy of the name. He was an Englishman, who, as guardian of the Talisman, found his own destiny; a destiny that was difficult to live with, but even more difficult to die for.’

‘That sounds like a riddle, Godwin.’

‘Maybe it is, sire. But every man must find his destiny, live with it and then come to terms with its reckoning. So must kings… and so must emperors.’

1. Young Thegn

The year was 1053, the eleventh year of the rule of Edward I, King of England, later to be called ‘The Confessor’, an accession that had ended a brief dynasty of three Danish kings on the throne of England. Edward was of the royal Cerdician house, a centuries-old Anglo-Saxon lineage from England’s heartland in Wessex. However, for twenty-five years before becoming King, Edward had lived in exile in Normandy at the home of his mother, the redoubtable Emma of Normandy.

Edward ruled a kingdom that was far from secure. The ambitious Welsh warlord, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, controlled most of the land west of Hereford and was attempting to unify the Welsh tribes. To the north, Macbeth, King of the Scots, was a shrewd and resourceful leader. The Danes and Norwegians were always looking for opportunities to plunder England’s riches, as they had for centuries. Most significantly of all, the restless Normans lay in wait across the Channel in northern France, on the lookout for an opportunity to strike.

The Norman leader was the ferocious William, Duke of Normandy. The 26-year-old illegitimate son of Robert, sixth Duke of Normandy, and Herleve Fulbert, daughter of a humble tanner of Falaise. Herleve’s origins were ordinary, but not so her looks, nor her personality. She was strikingly beautiful and keenly intelligent. Like his mother, William was a remarkable individual. He had gained the dukedom as a minor at the age of eight and had fought hard to keep it. But he was not satisfied with a mere dukedom; he wanted the kingdom of England and to found an enduring dynasty.

The Normans were a strange paradox. Although descended from Vikings, they represented a unique blend of Norse ferocity and southern European sophistication. To the anguish of all they encountered, they loved to fight and ruled their conquered lands with an iron fist. Some were clever and cunning adventurers, or great builders of fortifications and cathedrals; a few were ardent and self-righteous empire makers; others were simple opportunists who lived for the moment as mercenaries and cut-throats. William had all of these traits in a diabolical blend.

Bourne, a small village in Lincolnshire, was a quiet place far removed from the power games of kings. To the west of the village ran the great Roman road to York and beyond it lay the Bruneswald, the great forest at the heart of England. To the east were the Fens, a morass of dangerous marshes covered with dense, often impenetrable undergrowth. The village sat on slightly higher ground where sluices, begun by the Romans, drained off the surplus water, leaving soil rich enough to allow the local farmers to prosper.

The Thegn of Bourne was called Leofric, a descendant of an old Saxon landed family and a man much admired in his community. He married above himself when he became betrothed to Aediva, a woman from a nearby Danish community who was descended from the gentry of North Fresia. There was much mixed Saxon and Danish blood in England, with several areas of Danish settlement close to Bourne, and a tolerant coexistence had been established.

Bourne was a relatively prosperous village but, even so, life was simple and sometimes harsh. The cycle of the seasons was managed by back-breaking toil, where the only respite from six and a half days of hard labour was a Saturday evening of drinking and feasting in the Thegn’s longhouse. This was always followed by a church service on Sunday morning, when the humble parishioners would be reminded of God’s mercy for the righteous and of the fires of Hell for those less virtuous.

Built over a hundred years earlier from split oak trunks, the longhouse was over thirty yards from end to end. The food was plentiful and the mead flowed copiously as the old sagas were recited by the senior men of the village. The small wooden church nearby was the ethical anchor of the community and Aidan the Priest its moral helmsman. But even he could do little about the primordial instincts that flowed through the veins of the good people of Bourne.

God-fearing Christian Bourne coexisted with a much older Bourne, where ancient beliefs still thrived. Pagan rituals to ward off the forces of evil, which were thought to lurk deep in the forests or to slink in the black waters of the marshes, were regularly held in the dead of night. The women of the village knew how to mix potent drinks, perform erotic dances and recite haunting incantations. There was a tradition of manly competition; wrestling, archery, hunting and drinking contests were fair game and allowed the men to show their prowess and impress the womenfolk. Beneath its rustic simplicity, the real life of Bourne was earthy and crude.

Hereward, the son of Leofric of Bourne, had been born eighteen years earlier, in the year 1035. The King of England at the time was the Dane Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut the Great and his wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton. He held the throne as Regent, awaiting the arrival of Hathacnut from Denmark, the son of Cnut’s union with Emma of Normandy.

When he was younger, Leofric’s status as a village thegn meant that, from time to time, he had been required to serve as a housecarl in the King’s army, but he was more of a farmer than a warrior. His son was a very different proposition. Even as a boy, Hereward cast a formidable shadow. He was not born to be a humble farmer, a minor thegn to a small community; he preferred the adventure of open spaces, the challenge of the unknown and the achievement of turning an obstacle into a stepping-stone. He could ride before he could walk, he could run before he could think about where he was going, and he could control others before he understood how to use that supremacy wisely. He was rebellious and troublesome and soon became a lost cause to his parents.

Hereward was a prodigiously tall six feet one inch. His heavily muscled frame carried no fat and his long, athletic legs formed a strong base for a powerful upper body. Even as a teenager he could beat all the men of the village in whatever challenge they threw at him, and as soon as he had hair on his chin several of the more precocious girls of the village were inclined to take him off to the woods to have their way with him.

His behaviour became intolerable to his parents.

Matters came to a head in the spring of 1053, shortly after Hereward’s eighteenth birthday. It was a beautiful day, the sky crystal blue and the air still but enlivened by the cacophony of birdsong. Hereward and his father had been hunting with the village freemen in the Bruneswald. All men feared the seemingly endless Bruneswald. In the deepest parts it was as dark as night, and even the most daring hunters did not venture too far from the main tracks, for fear of what they would find, human or otherwise.

They had had a good hunt. As usual, Hereward, who had seen the deer first and had his arrow in flight before the others could reach for their bows, had bagged the main kill. As the hunting party approached the village, Hereward threw his prize across the neck of his father’s horse and rode off to the north, shouting as he went that he had a couple of things to attend to in the fields.

Leofric knew that he would be wasting his time trying to stop his son. He could only bellow into the distance, demanding that he be at his table by sunset. He watched Hereward disappear through the trees; his only son, a man-child he loved deeply, but who was a constant source of pain to him. The boy’s sense of fun was infectious but

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