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The Fear of King Canute

By Alison Lock

I am weary of their clamorous chatter, their irksome babble. I slip between the boulders and crouch as if to mesh a moment into rock, and there I sigh within the privacy of my stone throne. Hearing the echoed cries of my advisors, I chuckle at their disarray, their panic, as they search the caves below the cliffs, while others, wade through the slush-sand towards the shallows. They are calling, calling.

I creep over the bladder-wrack rocks, my feet press popping sacs, I hunker for a while to watch the creatures in a rock pool: crabs, jelly fish, tiny sea urchins, dog whelks, winkles, limpets; all existing within the hierarchy of a private briny world. And yet, these men, so astute, so sagacious, these men of courage, brain and brawn; they know less than a barnacle on a rock. They believe I have the power to halt the tide.

I shudder. A cold wave lashes at my legs.I leap onto dry rock but before I can re-compose I am exposed, ousted from my hide-away as the last rays of sun send streaks of jewel studded gold into the bronzing light.

My Queen, my dearest Emma, will be sailing from the coast of Normandy. Her pilgrimage has been long, but her mission has been twofold. Not only has she sought to visit the shrine of Our Lady but with my urging, she has secured the lands of her inheritance. And now, on her return she must again face the crossing of the sea, face her deepest fear.

Later, I lay on my couch as the ghost mists of night descend. I pray and beg for deliverance from the task ahead as I wait for the silver daggers of dawn. My guards are silent. Elevated on this mound of dune, I watch the stars through a triangle of canvas. I can just see the spray at the shoreline, how it is refracted in the slip-shine of the moon; how each wave delivers an epiphany of plight. Like a breath held before the rumbling ebb; there is fear in my heart as each slap wave draws further on the silt, gnawing at the edge of my Kingdom.

Like every slight of hand, this request, this trick, is almost imperceptible.

How can my Kingship be tested in this way? What greater warrior do they need?

Now, my subjects wish to secure a place for me among the Gods, or perhaps, they simply seek to make a fool of me. But my God is in his heaven to where my soul one day will rise. I know that my power on earth goes by His grace alone. I am not ‘Almighty’ as some would have it. For that I must command the seas and I know too well the force of nature is not the territory of man, never has been and never will be, not for anyone, peasant nor King.

King. That is a mighty word. It is one that I own and will not easily relinquish. I am King Cnut, King of Denmark, Norway, England, some of Sweden too; an Emperor before the gates of Christendom. Nevertheless, I am a mortal king and this very knowledge is my strength: never have I believed that I can rule more than land itself; not the birds in the sky, nor the fish in the sea. But my subjects have no such humility and now they are bent on testing my powers, my majesty.

Bardric, my loyal and trusted friend, spoke first of this concern.

“They request that you command the tide,” says he.

I laugh.

“They have taken you for a fool, Bardric,” I reply.

“I am a fool, your Majesty, it’s true,” he says, “but a fool that listens with his heart.”

“Ha, I believe you have lingered too long in this country of green spirits, witchery, and fairy craft,” I reply. “Perhaps it is time we find you a mission before you are subsumed in pagan lore.”

“Your Majesty, they will not leave the subject alone,” he continues, “not until your greatness has been proven.”

“Surely you are not taken in by these foreign lords?” I cry. “This piffle is merely set to undermine me.”

“There is talk, your Majesty…” he continues.

“Talk? Talk is talk! Is my power over many lands not proof enough that I am fit to be their King?”

“As their King, only you can decide.”

He is shrewd, there is no flicker of humour around his mouth.

“So, they wish for me to halt the course of the tide? Reverse its natural flow?”

Bardric is silent.

“The sea is a force of nature tuned by the stars, the planets and the shifting winds,” I declare. “Far greater than a single man, even one who is a King.”

But now, it has come to this. This challenge must be quelled. If I am to keep my crown I must prove my worth without losing their loyalty, or indeed, I will lose face.

They say that at the point of lowest tide, when the waxing of the seasons has reached its vernal peak, it is the time of Equinox. And it is also said by the gossip-mongers, that at first light, I, King Cnut, shall pit his power against the vastness of the world to claim the ultimate crown; King of the Seas.

For three moons now, the bards have sung their fine-teased lyrics, the jesters have provoked. The maids have tittle-tattled, the cooks rumoured, even my knights and squires can speak of little else. The time has almost come to deal with their absurdity.

But still I do not know what must be done. Perhaps there is no other way but to play their scheming game. I will not have the history books say that I was the fool who thought he could reverse the tide. No.

I look to heaven but does heaven look on me?

I call for my sword; iron that can be drawn from the earth, smelted in the pits of fire, hammered into a warrior’s sword. My answer will surely lie in the blade that has saved me on countless times. My right hand is adept, used to the wielding of this implement, controlled by the deftness of my wrist.

I withdraw the crafted blade from its sheath and as I do a small item drops to the ground, and, for a moment, it is lost on the intricate woven carpet. My hand reaches out, feels for the floor around my feet.

I hold up the coin to the light. ‘CNUT REX ANGLORU,’ it reads.

One penny: a keepsake, the first coin cut by the minter in London, given to me for luck, a present from my beloved Emma. The only word we have is of the outward journey. As arduous as ever, the vessel unsafe, damned with the blight of disease. The Abbess, her life-long companion, fell ill and died, but my beloved Emma survived. This loss of her childhood friend to the sea will have caused her much distress. And my poor Emma, she suffers so greatly from the sickness, a malady that affects even the sturdiest of sailors.

I look through the opening of the tent and see our Royal Encampment, that portion of my Kingdom’s land within arm’s length: a dune that is enclosed, canopied, hemmed by a ring of fluttering pennants. The invader lies beyond, waiting to intrude with watery glee. I was never like my father. Sweyn Forkbeard held no fear of the sea. On my first expedition, I knew nothing of the power of the ocean, but felt safe within the orbit of my father’s eye. We were drawn into the rough seas around the Islands of Orkney in our narrow long-ship just as a storm began. In between the flashes of lightning a mountain of sea appeared, erupting before our eyes, its toppling edge tipping us onto our side as we clung on, bound ourselves with ropes strapped to the hull, the masts, or to each other. Several men fell overboard and were lost. I believed we were about to drown as we tilted into the maw of a deep whirlpool, but just as we circled the outer ring, the force lessened, and with the might of those on board, we broke free of the jaws that threatened to swallow us.

I would never forget that ordeal. When, later on, I assembled my own fleet, I insisted that only the best, the strongest, the fastest, should be employed. I declared my fleet invincible: 22 sturdy long ships with sails for greater speed, 10000 men equipped with armour, shields and oars, provisions to last a year at sea.

Nevertheless, despite all precautions since; the incident at Orkney haunts my darkest dreams. And now, at the cusp of night and day, I sweat as if with fever despite the stillness of the air. The haunting sounds of the sea enter my tent and the camp is suffused with the base light of dawn. All armour is ready polished; limbless breastplates, shields, helmets, glint in the first risings of the sun as if in readiness for the great King of the Sea.

I hear a beat, the drum of time. My heart, quickening and rising in my chest. My throat constricts. I will fail, fall ill, or fall from grace; just at the moment of my testing. Am I the one who dares demean His power? What right have I to pit myself against His grace?

The beat of my heart is soon replaced with the rhythm of hooves.

“Your Majesty, Queen Emma arrives from France.” My servant’s voice breaks the dawn, a fanfare coincides with the rising of the sun.

My prayers are answered. Who but my beloved Emma knows better of the tempests of the sea? Who suffers more than her, whose fear is greater? And she, my brave Queen, has sailed the Channel between England and her homeland on the Norman coast. Now is not the time to tempt providence? I hold the fine edge of my sword to the light; its sheen is silvered as if fresh-drawn from the forger’s fire.

“Set my chair above the line of the tide… turned to face inland.”

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Alison Lock is a writer of short stories and poetry. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing (2011), and a collection of short stories, Above the Parapet (2013). She also works collaboratively with other artists, musicians, and visual artists. She has an MA in Literature Studies.

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