Where do characters come from? I wrote quite extensively about how Artemisia Montessori developed from a very simple idea into the protagonist of my most recent novel, The Devil Within Us. Not all of my characters appeared that way, however.
When I was researching The War Wolf I had no idea that there were three major battles during 1066. I had originally started out with the Battle of Stamford Bridge as my starting point, but then discovered the lesser known but equally important Battle of Fulford Gate. It was then that I realised that I could write a trilogy of books. It was obvious to me that the one character that could successfully link all three stories together had to be a warrior and that was when Coenred was born.
From very early on I got a good understanding of the kind of man I wanted as a character. He was to be in the prime of his life, which was about thirty years old in 1066, a man of experience, and also someone who was considering a major change in his life. The fact that both Eorl Edwin and his brother Eorl Morcar were young men themselves helped create the idea of the older Huscarl being a mentor to the two noblemen, but one they were beginning to resent as, in the Saxon world, boys became men at the age of 15.
Mildryth appeared because I wanted a part of the story to be told by lesser-folk. Yes, her husband was a theign of the middle rank, but she was not so high and mighty that she could not make friends with a peasant woman like Branda. I wanted her to be a strong woman, not just a love interest. Indeed, I initially did not intend for her relationship with Coenred to begin until after his final battle. That was the original idea, but she pushed me in a slightly different direction. To give her the opportunity to display her strength of character Mildryth’s backstory included her being widowed following the murder of her husband and son at the hands of Tostig Godwinson, the brother of King Harold. This detail achieved several things. First, Mildryth was clearly the victim of events, but she would reveal a strength of will to build a new life for herself. Second, it cast Tostig in a dark light, which was fitting because he was also a traitor. Third, it formed a tenuous link between Coenred and Tostig that would grow stronger and only be resolved when the two met at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
I was very conscious of not casting Mildryth as the helpless female in the scene when she first meets Coenred. The encounter is preceded by Coenred reflecting aimlessly on his life as a warrior. Mildryth uses the pretext of supplying him with food and drink to orchestrate a meeting that will fulfil her own agenda. Aware that Tostig is returning and concerned as to what that might mean for her, she looks to recruit Coenred as her protector. It is quite a sensible move. In the Saxon world women looked to their families for protection, be that a father, a brother, or a husband. As Mildryth has none of these she approaches an eorl’s man. For his part, Coenred is honour bound to protect the people of his lord, and Mildryth qualifies as one of those. When she asks him he cannot deny her the protection that she seeks. The passing of the scramsaex between them is not only a token for the sealing of their pact, it becomes a symbol of their love that will grow as the story develops.
Obviously, Coenred cannot be on hand to protect Mildryth all the time. In fact, the two are largely separated by circumstance. If this were not the case then Mildryth might very well not have her several opportunities to deal with Wulfhere as she does. Wulfhere, now there’s a villain. I created him with the sole intent of tormenting Mildryth. He is the antonym of Coenred. Although he initially dresses as a warrior he is far from being such and soon abandons that life when things go against the Saxons of York. Initially, he forms an attachment to Mildryth simply because he has come to hear that she has a case for compensation for the death of her husband and son lodged against Tostig Godwinson. He anticipates that she might come into some money and, as she is all alone in the world, he believes that he can enjoy both the money and her as well.
I really did not have to work too hard with the scenes between Mildryth and Wulfhere. Each time they encounter each other he comes off worse. When Mildryth cuts his face two things happen; first, she asserts her courage and bolsters her own confidence, second, she fatally damages his own vision of himself. After this violent scene, Wulfhere convinces himself that Mildryth is a witch who has cursed him. It is the only way that he can explain to himself the run of misadventure that he now embarks on.
Even though he is not present when Wulfhere is, Coenred is indeed protecting Mildryth, only against much greater enemies in the guise of King Hardrada of Norway, Tostig Godinwson, and of course Duke Guillaume of Normandy. Battles can be fought on many different fields and at many different scales.
I enjoyed writing the romantic scenes played out between Coenred and Mildryth. I did not try to be overly romantic. My aim was to describe the emotions that two people might experience in such moments. Each one ends with a parting, something painful to both of them but experienced and dealt with in different ways. Coenred is a professional warrior and physical pain is certainly known to him. The kind of emotions that Mildryth inspires in him is something different again and, truth be told, he has trouble in dealing with them. Actually, he does not deal with them at all. Instead, he compartmentalises his problems and deals with only those that he knows he can do something about. Mildryth is much more honest with herself. She never intended to fall in love with a man who makes his living from violence, but she accepts that that is what has happened to her. She does not look to change him, however. I think that the early realisation that if the current threat did not exist then Coenred would hang up his sword and become a theign encourages her to believe in him. It is her fate to understand, unfortunately, that in a time of crisis a man of honour will always be called away from the ones that he loves. All she can do is survive the dark days and be there for him when he returns from his last battle and hangs that sword up on the wall of their home for the final time. How sad for her that Coenred’s last battle is against the Normans at Sentlache Ridge near the town of Hastings.