What a treat this historical mystery has turned out to be. It's the story of the murder of a Saxon thane on the eve of King Cnut's 1018 meetings in Oxford of the proto-parliamentary Witenagemot (Saxon) and Ting (Danish.) He wants these former enemies to agree to the same laws for the entire country of England, enforced by himself.
I don't think I'm leaking any spoilers when I reveal that Cnut's plan does work and except for the lamentable incident of William the Norman 50 years later the peace that Cnut established lasted 200 years.
But that peace is in danger if Cnut doesn't find out who has murdered Osfrid the Saxon. Whom can he possibly find to investigate for him? Neither Saxons nor Danes will trust the results of anyone from the other side.
At just this ticklish moment two men wander into town. Winston is a failed monk, the country's best illuminator who has been hired by Queen Emma to paint a picture of her husband, Cnut. Halfdan is the younger son of a Saxon nobleman who backed Edmund and not Cnut. When Edmund died he lost his estates and Halfdan, Danish on his mother's side and Saxon on his father's, is scraping by with handouts and what he can steal.
They meet on the road one night when Winston has set up camp and Halfdan, who has been living off what he could steal, is deciding how to go about attacking the seemingly vulnerable man. But a pair of thugs attack Winston before Halfdan can do so and he comes to the monk's aid. The well-provisioned illustrator thankfully shares his roast leg of lamb with rosemary and they decide to travel together.
It turns out Queen Emma is out of town but King Cnut sees an opportunity to get himself out of a fix. He orders the two men to undertake a bit of sleuthing on his behalf. If they find a Dane killed Osfrid, the Danes will be satisfied that one of the investigators was at half Danish. And if a Saxon is discovered to be the murderer their Saxon background will save them from being accused of favoritism by the English.
And should they fail to discover the culprit Cnut can always banish them and say he did his best.
These are pre-feudal times when every nobleman defends himself and his land with a private army, and the king's housecarls intervene only when violence becomes impossible to ignore. It's dangerous to walk the streets of Oxford or to wander among the tents pitched by the noblemen who have come to the Witan and the Ting. Halfdan provides some protection to Winston, who is older and wiser and more observant.
I've recently been doing a lot of reading about post-Roman times in Britain and the colorful world of the Saxons. The author obviously knows his cultural history, although he makes no attempt to lecture the reader. The characters who people this story are wonderful: Tonild, the infuriated Saxon wife of the dead Osfrid; her truculent brother Ranulf; Godskalk, Cnut's head of security; Baldwin, the king's accountant; Wulfstan, the archbishop of York; and the fearsome Viking, Thorkell the Tall. The last two are historical characters.
And the murderer? It takes Winston and Halfdan a while to figure out who would benefit from the brutal and very public murder of this Saxon nobleman at just this crucial moment. But an illustrator by necessity pays close attention to detail and the young and impetuous Halfdan is intelligent and enthusiastic. Cnut is pleased with their work and the reader will be too.