My lady mother was so sure the English king planned to be rid of us the moment we set foot on his Saxon shores that she refused to sail there from Denmark. But we had been journeying for months after leaving Hungary, the lot of us: Papa, Mama, my sister and small brother, and a few servants. We were exhausted and sore in need of a home. Papa said we belonged in England, after all. I heard my parents arguing it at night.
My father, born a prince of England, had been exiled to the kingdom of Hungary as a small boy. Lately King Edward, his royal andchildless uncle, had summoned Papa-another Edward-home to England to restore his birthright and name him heir to the throne. Mama groused that while our uncle-king had beckoned, he would not pay our traveling costs, and she feared he might lay claim to the priceless treasures we hauled about in crates and chests. My mother, Agatha, was Russian and Hungarian by birth and blood, and little liked the English. Her warrior husband she excused; he had left England at a young age.
My father was Saxon royalty of the old Wessex line, and so were his children, harking back to wise King Alfred, to unready Aethelred and stubborn Edmund Ironside, my grandfather. Our brighter future lay in England. Lady Agatha would be queen there, according to both Edwards. Dignified if stubborn, she acquiesced.
The year I turned ten, we left Hungary, where my two siblings and I had been born. Traveling with a Magyar escort over high mountains into Russia, carrying heavy packed chests in carts the whole way, we stayed weeks in Kiev with my mother's kin, then sailed northward to winter among the Danes, my father's cousins. That place was dull and smoky indoors, but splendid outside. I saw how much we resembled the Danes and the Rus, too, for we were long limbed and golden fair, with taut cheekbones and sky-colored eyes. Only my sister Cristina took after the dark and stocky Magyars, the tough bloodline of our mother's maternal kin; she had a bold temperament, too, outspoken where I was acquiescent, hot and impulsive where I was cool and devout as I tried to emulate my pious mother and grandmother.
We crossed the wide, pitching North Sea, while my mother murmured of impending doom and prayed over her black-beaded rosary. Despite her worrying, the Danish vessel skimmed the waves like a winged dragon and brought us swiftly to English shores.
In London town, we were welcomed by lords who spoke the Saxon language that my father knew and we did not. The king was away, but we were housed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke German, our preferred tongue, with us. We were dined, entertained, and assessed by a parade ofbishops, priests, and notable lords and ladies; servants, too, I suppose. Assured that he would be king eventually, my father gently teased his wife that her fears were unfounded.
A week after our arrival, he fell dead at my feet.
A few of us were walking in the archbishop's gardens after supper with some of England's earls and thanes when my father collapsed on a path. We could not rouse him. To this day, years on, I can recall my disbelief and shock, my father's gray face, my mother's paleness, and the scents of calendula and thyme.
Poison was the rumor, denied and dismissed. The king's physician said Edward Aetheling had a weak heart, though my father had been a lion of a warrior, with spare habits and good health. Tainted food was suggested by others, though no one else had fallen sick that night.
Taint or poison, I alone knew the truth: I had killed him.
At my insistence, he had eaten sweetmeats from a golden tray set on the table before him. At first he had refused, intent on his discussion with a Saxon bishop. But with girlish silliness, I pushed the tray toward him, saying he must obey Princess Margaret. Distracted, smiling, he downed the treats in a fistful or two. Within the half hour, he was dead. Likely there was strong poison in those honeyed almonds and hazelnuts-and my father would not have eaten them that night but for my urging.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, but I never confessed my deed to a priest, only adding to the heinous sin. Fear kept me silent. I wore bruises into my knees praying self-imposed penances, while my lady mother approved my pious grieving, mistaking what moved me so. I could not tell her and hurt her even more.
At court, some whispered of the ambitious men who would have benefitted from the death of Edward the Exile: Harold Godwinson was one, brother of the queen and son of an ambitious Saxon earl, and William of Normandy was another. King Edward, rumor said, had bargained his crown to both men secretly and then gave the heir's right to my father. Whether one of them had ordered Edward the Exile killed or some other had done it, my own hand had aided the killer. I shared the sin.
That gnawed at me, crept into my dreams, perched on my shoulder like a demon.
Overnight we transformed from exalted royal family to the foreign wards of a king who took little interest in us yet would not permit usto return to Hungary. My siblings and I were educated as befitted our status in that formal, refined court. But we were in effect hostages housed as king's wards, our little freedom spent witnessing the hunt, hawking, or taking the short and frequent journey between the London and Winchester palaces. Often my sister and I refused to ride in the canopied van that carried the women, delighting in a chance for the saddle. We had been partly raised by Magyar kin,after all.
At five years old, my brother Edgar was named king's heir in a ceremony, while the other claimants for the English throne remained avid and interested. The year I turned twenty and Edgar thirteen, our aged royal uncle died, leaving Edgar the Aetheling, Harold Godwinson, and William of Normandy each believing in his own right to be king.
Harold was quickly chosen by the witanagemot
and duly crowned. England needed a warrior-king, not a stripling boy, that year. Had Harold taken hawk's wings to soar over the cliffs of England, he would have seen two threats at once: the Danes sweeping in from the east and the Normans coming from the south.
Within months, in the autumn of anno domini 1066, the mail-clad warriors of Normandy slid their boats, silent and lethal, onto our English shore. Harold died on Hastings field and William took us for his wards-but as soon as we could get away, my kin and I fled. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Queen Hereafter by Susan Fraser King. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Fraser King. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.