Earl Tostig, was a very bad judge of most situations. He had set the stage for this day s drama with a stupid attempt to shift blame for what had become wholesale rebellion in his own ill-run earldom. Before the King, he had loudly accused his brother Harold of evil-doing and trouble-making. But the King had not cared to hear Tostig's stupid tale. The King was old, and tired, and was not interested in his brother-in-laws latest squabble. The Queen s family had pushed him around for twenty years, and he had now shut his ears to them.
As a result, Tostig was left hanging in the wind, unable to find a safe footing at court and now at the mercy of his offended brother. All night he had witlessly hoped that Harold would let it pass, water under the bridge.
Tostig had kept that hope alive until now. But it didn t look good for him.
Here was Harold drunken now, who stood unsteadily at his own High Table, his tiny store of self-restraint dead to the world from grog. Harold had just revealed the depth of his own hostility with careless words of anger, had unleashed a spouting horror of menacing invective towards Tosti . The guests were clearly alarmed.
Only one man there missed the point, being drunken himself, and thought the whole tirade an uproarious jest. He guffawed loudly. His suddenly alarmed mates either side silenced him quickly enough, reacting at once to his hooting roar with a couple of extremely powerful blows to his ribs. As he bent forward in agony, gasping like a suffocating codfish to catch what was left of his wind, they looked about as if they, too, were unable to see what the sudden noise was all about.
Two little boys stood ready, in the kitchen, awaiting orders. The cook s assistant was done loading trays and the lads were first in line to shoulder it out to the guests. Edmund saw that the very heaviest tray, meat for all, was about to be moved his way. He nudged the larger Aethelwold towards it, pointing. "Hurry up."
Aethelwold nodded consent. The sturdy little fellow stepped forward to heft the tray-full of roast lambs and geese onto his shoulder. The cook's assistant came out of the cellar bristling with wine bottles; tucked firmly under his left arm one dozen bottles of wine worked against each other as further fistfuls of bottles dangled from between the fingers of each hand. As Aethelwold followed him out to the assembled guests, Edmund selected the lightest load and trailed along, followed by the older servants with their own armloads of food.
There was a vast silence in the great hall as they entered in. The boys felt far too intrusive, and tried without success to make themselves invisible as they went about their duties. Their scuffling and the clunking of bottles placed on tables were the only noises in the room.
The embarrassed guests now gladly pretended to focus their stern attention upon the servant boys, instead of upon their hosts. It was easiest to concentrate on Aethelwold, who was clearly struggling for control under the weight of roasted meats. The boy looked like he was certain to overtip the tray and drop all onto the floor.
Seated at High Table between the two Earls, their friend Gospatrick kept his wits and gave away nothing. His left hand reached for the goblet of beer, and twisted it about thoughtfully. What, he wondered, was going to happen now? He quickly marked his young cousin, the Scottish Princess Margaret, whom he had brought with him to Oxford. He thought she would recoil at Harold s temper, but to his relief she appeared to be unaware of what was going on in front of her. Indeed, she seemed dull, but from a stolen glimpse he saw, in her eye, that in the great tension of that silent hall, she was on the verge of laughter.
Gospatrick himself now stifled a smirk by turning his mouth down in apparent stern disapproval. He turned then, and helped himself to what he wanted of the cooked goose presented to him on an enormous tray shouldered by the stout little servant boy. As he pulled a fistful of meat from a plump, hot goose, he was thinking of Tostig and quipped to himself, this is nay the sole goose who d be cooked here.
The drunken Tostig had not missed the treachery in his brother's belligerence, and he glared at the drunken Harold, who now stood awkwardly in silence.
Groggy as he was, Harold knew he had said too much.
As he carried his own tray closer to the Earls, Edmund kept an eye on Aethelwold as he swung the huge meat dish around the room. Watching the boy manage that tray gave everyone pause, but he never dropped it, and it lightened as it emptied. At the High Table, little Edmund looked up and caught Earl Harold's eye and gave him an agreeable smile and nod as he served out the buttered carrots and creamed cabbages, as if to say this fine dinner would set things right. Harold glared down at him.
Then Harold looked up, and tried to concentrate on all his guests seated round about at every table in the hall. They were looking at him, wanting something from him again. They weren't enjoying themselves. What ingrates! He turned from the thegns to the manservants, muttering, "Eat your food, it s getting cold!" and sat heavily down on his oaken chair.
A grateful murmer built, as the guests obligingly put the tension on the back burner. Earl Harold began to chow down as though fully occupied with the difficulty of eating well. Tonight, he promised himself, he was having Tosti, the dangerous fool, arrested. The Confessor will go along with it, will do what he's told. Always does. He s a good boy, old King Edward.
Tostig was relieved with the sudden improvement in Harold s temper. He continued to watch his brother, trying to gauge his intentions, but failing. Not for the first time, he kicked himself. Why does Harold always win? To one and all, yesterday s gamble by Tostig had taken on a familiar tone, it was yet another one of his very bad ideas.
Edmund went back into the kitchen thinking that he had somehow been responsible for improving everyone's mood.
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