Well everyone, it has been fun sharing the Last Tales with you. I have already begun to miss the world of Anglo-Saxon England and all the characters I’ve gotten to know so well over the last few years. But you can stay with them for awhile longer. Next Tuesday, October 2, the final volume releases. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story of Edric, Osbern, Geoffrey, Audrey, and the many more characters of Edric the Wild!
If you’d like a head-start, I’ve provided the first 17 pages of the novel below. Enjoy!
Releasing October 2, 2012
Cover art by Del Melchionda
Winter 1059 A.D.
On his sixteenth birthday, Edric became intoxicated for the first time and made an unusual resolution. “I am going to punch Osbern FitzRichard in the face,” he declared.
Whether he would have made such a decision without so much wine in his bloodstream, one could hardly say. Perhaps the wine gave him an excuse. He had certainly wanted to punch Osbern many, many times before. But he had never decided to go through with it until now.
His dear friend, Leofred, fixed him with a drunken stare of his own. The young man had hardly downed a single horn of alcohol, and yet he was already swaying about on his seat. Despite this, he seemed to maintain a better state of mind than Edric. “Um … that does not seem like a good thing to do.”
Edric’s gaze narrowed on the young noble on the other side of the tavern. Osbern FitzRichard was as Norman as they came. His dark hair was cut high up his head, so short that his pale skin remained visible up the back of his neck to the top circle of his scalp. He wore a long flowing tunic and a short mantle about his shoulders. He had big, droopy lips and cruel, gleaming eyes. Most offensively, he was now making a clumsy attempt to dance to the beat of the harpist’s jig. His leather boots flopped erratically against the floorboards.
“Just look at him tumble, Leofred,” said Edric. “I think it would be a mercy to everyone in this tavern to flatten him now.”
Leofred followed his gaze and grimaced. “By God, you’re right.”
Edric took another swig of wine, hissing through his teeth as he swallowed the sweet liquor. He felt like a strong man, as large and burly as his father, as he pushed himself up to his feet. Perhaps that was because the spirits made his lean form feel heavier than usual, but never mind that. His curly red hair flashed across his eyes, completing for him the hellish visage of Osbern, the oaf kicking his feet next to the fire.
Osbern’s dancing was indeed un-Godly, but that was not the real reason Edric wished to punch him. His lack of musical coordination was the least of the Norman’s insults to his Anglo-Saxon neighbors. He was a cruel young boy who abused the peasants working his father’s lands by bullying them with the sword. He forced laborers from the fields to leave their crops and help Lord Richard FitzScrob construct his enormous castle. The father and son took more than their fair share of serfs’ dues and committed all sorts of foul deeds against well-meaning folks without any repercussions.
So what might happen if Edric punched him in the face? There was only one way to find out.
He turned to go and then paused again. “I suppose I mustn’t land the first blow,” he realized aloud. “That would give the wrong impression.”
Leofred held up a finger as if stricken by a brilliant idea. “Get him to swing at you first.”
“Ah yes,” said Edric. “I will begin by striking him with words. But what shall I say?”
Leofred shrugged helplessly.
Edric smacked the table. “I’ll come up with something!” He turned to go again.
“Wait!” called Leofred, and once more Edric halted. “I’d like to dance with a girl first.”
Edric struggled to fix his swimming eyes on his friend. “Can’t you do that later?”
“Might be harder for me to,” said Leofred, “if you’ve gone and punched someone.”
Edric considered the truth of this. He felt sorry for the young stable-hand, keeper of his father’s horses. God had not been kind to the youth when creating his appearance. He was simply ugly, with crooked eyes and jutting teeth, and a large birthmark on one side of his face. Leofred’s resolution to dance with a willing maiden was much more outlandish than Edric’s desire to punch someone. He didn’t want to say as much to his friend, but he also didn’t want to wait to punch Osbern until Leofred found a dancing partner. He could be waiting forever.
The Anglo-Saxon lord sighed. “Which one would you like to dance with?”
Leofred’s eyes brightened with hope. “That one!” Naturally, he picked the most beautiful maiden in the room. Her dress hung low and tight to outline the swell of her breasts, and her hair fell in gorgeous brown waves on either side of them, like a frame. Edric scratched uncertainly at his red curls.
“Should I go and ask her?” Leofred started to stand up.
“Ah, no, no, no.” Edric put a hand on the stable-boy’s chest and guided him firmly back down. “I’ve a better idea. I’ll go over and talk to her first. We’ll make her think it’s her own idea to dance with you, you see. What do you say?”
Edric forced his mouth to grin until he turned the other way, at which point it fell back into a frown. He glanced longingly at Osbern’s prancing figure. How much better Osbern’s face would look with a slightly crooked nose. But he pushed that thought aside, and made his way over to the gorgeous maiden’s table.
As they fell on him, her brown eyes twinkled with that perfect combination of innocence and knowing.
“Ah,” he said. “My lady. What is your name?”
So she was also Welsh, then. At least she was not Norman. He tried to bow graciously to her, though in his tipsy state, he bowed much lower than he intended. “You’re so very beautiful, Gwendolyn.” He looked up at her through his lashes.
She struggled not to giggle. “And you’re … cute.”
Edric frowned. Girls often called him “cute,” and he grew tired of it. He was a bit soft around the edges, he knew, and his cheeks tended to carry a soft pink glow. But he had hoped that by the age of sixteen, the girls would stop making the same faces at him that they made at newborn puppies. “I beg a favor.”
“Yes?” She cocked a neatly arched eyebrow. How perfectly her lips puckered beneath her nose, as if permanently primed for the kissing! Must Leofred have aimed so high?
Only one way to achieve this, he decided. He reached into his purse and pulled out a silver piece.
The lady’s eyes opened wide and her smile dissolved. Her friends murmured in tones of disapproval.
Belatedly, Edric realized he had led her to the wrong assumption. “A dance, a dance!” he cried, his cheeks growing hot with a blush.
The ladies fell into relieved laughter, and the sharp corners of the lady’s mouth turned up again. “In that case, I—”
“Not with me.”
She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, tiring of the games.
“It’s my friend, over there, whom I wish you to dance with.” He stepped aside and revealed Leofred sitting a few tables away. “The fellow with the, er, lovely shadow on his cheek.” He cursed himself for pointing out Leofred’s birthmark, but the stable-hand had no other feature so distinguishing.
Leofred must have met her gaze for a moment, for his eyes went wide, but then he turned aside and twiddled his fingers, as if he had not seen anything out of the ordinary.
For a long moment, Gwendolyn looked uncertain. Then she stood up, haughty and indignant, and snatched the coin from Edric’s fingers. Without another word, she stormed away, but fortunately for Edric, she stormed in the direction of Leofred.
“What did I do?” he said.
Her friends snickered, but offered no other wisdom.
To Edric’s relief, Gwendolyn fulfilled her part of the bargain and led Leofred to the dance floor. In a few moments the two of them were gliding along the floor in perfect sway to the melody. Perhaps Leofred possessed a poor face, but he could dance well enough, and soon even Gwendolyn seemed to enjoy herself.
Witnessing the joy on his friend’s face, Edric felt pleased. The jovial mood of the tavern lifted his spirits and filled him with cheer. Outside a cold wind blustered and even creaked against the wooden walls, but it could not pierce the warmth and coziness of the hall. The smells of bread and butter seemed permanently soaked into the walls, softening the more pungent aromas of the travelers and field-hands. This tavern betwixt Watling Street and Shrewsbury town attracted a motley crew—even some wealthier lads like Edric and Osbern who needed an escape from their halls—but most people here banded together like equals.
Remembering Osbern, Edric’s mood soured again. At last he returned to his primary purpose. He staggered past the seated folk of the tavern, who paid the red-headed youth little mind at all, and made his way to the open floor. Osbern was still hopping about like a fool and, worst of all, he had pulled over a maiden to join him. She did not look very pleased as she struggled to keep in time with his awkward movements, but her humility obliged her to keep trying.
“Hey Osbern,” Edric shouted. His voice was unnecessarily loud over the harp and cut through the hum of the tavern’s noise. “Having a bit of trouble, are you?”
Osbern slowed down, gripping the maiden’s hand stubbornly as he continued to jiggle in place. His thick eyebrows furrowed close together, casting a long shadow over his maple-brown eyes. “What’s that? No, I am fine!” He spoke with a thick Norman accent.
“You Normans have a strange style of dancing,” Edric sneered, “and an even stranger way of dressing for it. Is that a woman’s dress you’re wearing?”
Osbern flushed, glaring down at his own attire. Strange or not, the fabric was quiet beautiful, twined of blue and silver threads. “It’s called a long tunic, you filthy burgher. And I am trying to dance in your awkward Saxon style.”
“Forgive me,” said Edric. “I did not realize. I suppose it is impossible to take the steps properly with crooked feet.”
The casual chatter in the tavern faded to silence. The harp clanged as the player missed a note, though he mercifully kept playing, anyway. If he had not, a mortified quietude would have filled the room, for everyone stared in horror at the two teenaged boys. A few dance pairs away, Leofred and Gwendolyn watched anxiously.
“They are not crooked,” Osbern said at last, his voice wavering like the harpists’ strings. “I … I only have one bad foot, and it’s nearly fixed.”
Edric swayed slightly on his feet, feeling light-headed. Somewhere in his clouded consciousness, he sensed that perhaps he had chosen his insult poorly. The fact that many members of Osbern’s family had crooked feet was not just a joke; it was a reality. But it was too late to go back now. “So then,” he forged onward. He wished to end the talking as soon as possible and get to the punching. “Is your family’s true affliction mere clumsiness?”
Osbern lunged forward.
Whether Osbern’s foot was bad or not, Edric was much faster. He dodged aside so that Osbern’s knuckles grazed nothing but the edge of his red curls, sending a breeze past Edric’s cheek. Then Edric’s thrust up his own fist, knocking Osbern’s nose from below. A spray of blood went up, and Osbern’s eyes opened wide, watching this crimson fountain. The moment seemed suspended as everyone stared upon this unexpected sight. Osbern’s cry of pain followed shortly after.
The harpist ceased strumming.
Osbern at last fell over, catching himself with one hand while the other covered his nose. Edric watched in awe as dark red blood spilled through the Norman lad’s fingers.
For a moment, he stood transfixed. He had wanted to punch Osbern and he had done so. But he had not expected anything quite so gruesome. A gesture intended to injure the lord’s pride had caused a wound much more grievous.
Edric sensed men coming closer on either side of them; there were only two, but they were large strapping men, and they were armed. They were Lord Osbern’s knights.
“How now,” said Edric. “He swung at me first—”
Someone grabbed his arm and pulled. That someone was his dear friend Leofred, who possessed none of his friend’s boldness, but made up for it with common sense.
Edric was dazed enough to follow his friend’s lead, and together they stumbled out of the tavern, their leather boots bumbling across the floorboards.
The cold winter air struck Edric like a slap and he stopped just past the lip of the doorway, contemplating the frigid winter night ahead of him and the smoky tavern warmth behind him. He even turned slightly back around, but his eyes caught the glint of firelight against iron, and he realized this might be one of Osbern’s knights closing in on him. He dashed forward, his hand groping in the darkness for his friend. Leofred clutched his shoulder and led him onward, and they rushed round the tavern to their horses. Edric’s black stallion, Scima, was hard to find in the shadows. But Edric managed to find his horse and again he paused. He clung to the saddle, listening to the sounds behind him, or lack thereof. “But we shouldn’t have to leave. He swung at me first! If we run away, it will only make me look guilty.”
“Damn it, Edric, they’re coming!” Leofred’s hand lifted into the moonlight, pointing to two figures coming out of the tavern.
Edric decided it was too late to save face, so he tried to pull himself up. Unfortunately, he found it difficult with so much wine weighing down his body. His writhing efforts upset his horse, who shuffled from side to side and lashed its tail against his cheek. He cried out and struggled to hold on as the stallion spun in a circle.
Leofred reached down and smacked the horse’s haunches, and the beast at last lunged forward, carrying Edric away whether he liked it or not. A surge of strength filled his limbs and at last he straddled his mount, though he failed to anchor his weight and bobbed helplessly about.
The wind gripped his cloak and sent cold fingers down his tunic, but as his horse thundered from the tavern and across the loping fields, elation stirred in him again. Beside him, Leofred and his own horse became a blur of moonlit lines and curves. Beyond the fields, the treetops sparkled with frost and the stars of the sky twinkled. Somewhere far away, a wolf howled. How beautiful it all seemed, how magnificent, how absolutely wonderful.
He glanced back and saw that no one pursued them.
“I did it by God!” he cried. “I punched Osbern FitzRichard!”
He laughed with glee, but his companion remained strangely quiet.
In the morning he awoke in his own bed with an aching head and stomach. The sunlight seared his eyes and his head throbbed as he considered the events of the night before. Did he correctly remember the spray of blood flying from the Norman’s nose? He winced at this visual. The sound of his fist striking Osbern’s skull seemed to resound in his ears, booming over and over again.
Then he realized that the sound in his head came from someone knocking on his door.
His heart leapt in his chest and he scrambled out of his sheets. The sudden movement felt like a knife stab in the skull. As silently as he could, he hurried about the room getting dressed.
He had already guessed who it was, so the booming voice through the door only confirmed it. “I’m coming, I’m coming!”
His father was not in the mood to wait any longer, however. He swept open the door and stepped inside.
Edric stopped in the midst of tightening his garters. He grinned through his frizzy hair and pretended as if nothing were amiss.
Godric, however, stared back with an expression of shock and, worst of all, sadness. “You … forgot?”
It was strange to see his father’s weathered face look so hurt. Even though of Anglo-Saxon birth, Godric appeared to be a Viking. He wore an eyepatch over one eye, or lack thereof, for it had been carved from his skull as a boy. Edric knew this had something to do with the terrible crimes of his grandfather, Eadric Streona. Godric’s good eye was as blue and crisp as the sea. His tawny hair fell past his shoulders, which were large and burly, and Edric knew that one of them sported a large, knotted scar of pink flesh.
“I didn’t forget, Father. I just slept in. And I don’t feel well.”
“Why not?” Godric hurried forward, his heavy boots creaking against the floorboards. He gripped Edric’s chin and studied his face closely. “You look pale.”
“I’m well, thanks.”
“You just said you weren’t. What did you do last night?”
Edric groaned and rubbed his forehead. “I drank too much is all.”
“Did you do anything you regret?”
A moment ago Edric would have said yes. But he thought again of Osbern’s head flying back and the blood spraying. He smiled at the memory. “No. I regret nothing.”
Godric eyed him uncertainly, but saw that it was useless to keep questioning him on the matter. “You should eat something, if you can stomach it. We’ve a long day ahead of us.” But he smiled, and his one eye glistened. Edric knew that his father had looked forward to this day ever since last year, just as he had the year before that.
When Edric turned twelve years old, Godric gave him a horse of his own and led him all around the lands of their estate. They visited their tenants and laborers, sharing food and drink and discussing how they were faring through the winter. These visits were very different than any other times Godric came to see them, which was often when he needed to collect something or to resolve some sort of dispute. No, on this ride Godric was more cheerful and friendly with his peasants than ever. He oversaw some twenty hides of land, which was not so many as he had once controlled, nor as many as his neighboring thegns. But he seemed content with this number, and his tenants seemed equally content with him.
Every year now after Edric’s birthday, they rode together around their estate. The peasants would expect them now and have some treats prepared, and by the end of the day Edric would feel as fat as a pig. Edric thought Godric enjoyed the chance to be social with his peasants for the mere sake of being social, but he also thought Godric took great pride in showing his accomplishments to Edric.
Edric finished dressing himself in a soft green tunic and splashed water on his face from a bowl next to the doorway. Its icy slap helped rouse him to life. Finally he followed Godric to the hall.
He ate cheese and bread dipped in honey, and the food in his belly did him good. His mother, Osgifu, came to see him off. Her wimple of silk rustled as she leaned down to kiss his cheek. She smelled of the butter she spent many of her days churning, when she was not seeing to the finances of Godric’s estate.
“My dear Edric,” she said, “was all that drinking worth the way you feel now?” She reached out to pinch his nose.
“Bah!” he declared, and shooed her hand away. “I feel normal again, thank you.”
“Leave him be,” said Godric, but he smiled at them both. Osgifu grabbed her husband and kissed him on the lips.
Edric rolled his eyes. “Let’s be off!” he declared. Fortunately, his father was all too happy to comply.
Edric’s excitement ebbed again when the glaring sunlight struck him outside, and the stench of the stables made his stomach turn, and they found Leofred struggling miserably with their horses’ saddles. Godric watched the young stable-hand uncertainly.
“Leofred,” he said, and the poor lad jumped, for he had always been very intimidated by the one-eyed lord. “You look as bad as my son.” Leofred gulped nervously. “Did you do anything foolish?”
Thinking of it, the stable-hand suddenly beamed from ear to ear. “I danced with a beautiful lady.”
“Oh.” Godric blinked with surprise, then turned to Edric. “And what about you?”
Edric made a sour face and squinted into the orange horizon. “Look, Father, the sun is getting high.”
It was a poor attempt to dodge the question, and in a better state of mind, he would have done so more smoothly. But Godric chuckled and sank onto his horse’s saddle; he slapped his horse’s flank and together they bolted from the stable, cutting the morning frost with eager hooves. Edric sent a scowl to his friend, whose cheerfulness disagreed with him, and followed his father away.
The morning began like the ones of years past. They visited the kind shepherd, the quiet swineherd, and the jovial miller. Edric’s head ached behind the eyes but he still managed to enjoy the sound of twittering birds, the sight of melting frost, and the pleasantness of a warm fire whenever they entered someone’s house from the cold. The miller’s daughter was a nuisance, for she flirted with him incessantly with her father’s encouragement. For Godric to marry off his son to one of his own tenants would be foolish and pointless, but the miller seemed to hope for it anyway, and dropped all sorts of hints, which Godric ignored rather than deflected.
As noon fell over them, Godric and Edric progressed through the shade of scattered trees, listening to the wood creak as the wind blew and watching the dappled shadows sway left and right.
“You know,” said Godric suddenly, “you need not keep any girls a secret from me.”
The remark caught Edric completely off-guard. Not only was it rare that his father struck a conversation at all, but it was even rarer that he would strike one of this nature. “Girls! I don’t know what you mean, Father. There are none.”
The surprise in Godric’s voice upset Edric even more. “Of course not! Why would there be?”
Godric shrugged. “Your grandfather had a way with women. You’re a lot like him, you know.”
“No. I didn’t know.” Edric scowled. He did not like being reminded of his grandfather, Eadric Streona. Godric did not seem ashamed at all that their ancestor had been one of the greatest traitors their country had ever seen, and who had rightfully gotten his head chopped off, as far as Edric could tell. Godric even seemed proud of his father in a way Edric would never understand. They usually avoided the topic altogether, so it was strange for Godric to bring it up so casually. “They’re always making eyes at you, sighing at your every word,” said Godric. “Don’t you notice?”
Edric just snorted. He didn’t know what to say. Girls found him cute, and he often made them giggle. He knew they weren’t swept away by him in the manner Godric seemed to imagine. But why was Godric pressing him about this? His cheeks burned red as he sensed his father staring intently at him.
“You are, um … you’re not …” Godric grumbled to himself then turned away, as if giving up.
Now Edric was curious. “Am I what?”
Godric’s one eye transfixed him like a lance, and he regretted not letting the subject slip away while he had the chance. “You don’t like men, do you?”
“Men? You mean like Uncle Sigurd?”
This time, Godric was the one who turned red. He grumbled and looked away again. Technically Sigurd was a free man under Godric’s lordship, but he spent a suspicious amount of time visiting a neighboring thegn, Lord Alfric. It was not supposed to be common knowledge, and most people were good at being blind to it, but anyone of a sound mind who observed Sigurd and Alfric together long enough could guess the true nature of their relationship.
Godric and Sigurd were close friends, so close that Edric liked to call Sigurd his “uncle” out of fondness, but even Godric preferred to feign ignorance of Sigurd’s true lifestyle.
“Heavens no,” said Edric. “I just haven’t found the right woman yet.“
“The right woman?” Godric grunted.
“And who are you to disagree?” Edric straightened up indignantly. “You’re so in love with Mother you sometimes embarrass me.” He detected the slightest smile on his father’s face, and felt the same expression on his own. “Nonetheless … that is exactly the kind of love I want, Father. God has a woman for me, and she is out there somewhere, just waiting for me to discover her.”
Godric tried to push down his own smile. “Your mother and I were lucky, Edric. But before her, I spent eight years married to a reluctant woman. And though I hope you would never have to suffer so much as that, you should be prepared for the possibility.”
Edric bit back his retort. He knew for a certainty that he would marry the one woman God had picked for him, and none other. But he saw no reason to insist upon that with his father now. They would certainly disagree, and his head hurt too much to carry on an argument. Better to say nothing at all.
They experienced a short reprieve, listening to nothing but the crackling of twigs under their horses’ hooves; then they heard the thunder of a third set of hooves, rushing towards them much faster than any peace-loving horse and rider ought to.
Godric tensed and put his hand on his dagger. It was a knife short enough to use at the table yet long enough to be a weapon, and it was as beautiful as it was practical, for a dazzling red ruby tipped the hilt. But Edric still found it strange that his father depended on a dagger, rather than carrying around a sword or an axe. Godric was awkward with the sword, but masterful with the axe, and Edric did not understand why he didn’t keep an axe with him at all times. Whenever Edric mentioned it, Godric only said something cryptic about it sending him “into the past.”
Right now, Edric was more concerned about their future. But as the horse broke through the trees and revealed the intruder, the father and son released some of their tension with an exhale. It was one of Godric’s hearth companions, a large weathered fellow named Faran. Nonetheless, he seemed very unhappy.
“Godric,” he gasped, as out of breath as if he had been running alongside his horse. “It’s Richard FitzScrob. He’s in your hall with six men.”
Edric’s stomach turned yet again. Somehow, no matter how much he had assured himself that the events of last night would not come back to haunt him, he had known this would happen. But Godric was right to be puzzled. He went out of his way to be kind and cooperative with the great Norman lord, so much so that it usually put a bitter taste in Edric’s mouth. Some would even call the two lords friends. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“He says we killed one of his knights. Er, named … Ralph, I think.”
“WHAT?” Godric’s must have squeezed his horse sharply, for it pranced underneath him, churning the dirt. “We? WE WHO?”
This was terrible news, of course, but in a way Edric felt relieved. This had nothing to do with him.
Such relief was short-lived. In response to Godric’s question, Faran looked at Edric. Then Godric followed his example. The fury in Godric’s eye was so intense Edric felt his insides turn to mush.
“It wasn’t me!” he cried.
“So help me God,” growled his father, “if you have broken my peace with Richard—”
“It wasn’t me, Father, I swear. I don’t even know who Ralph is!”
Godric’s horse circled his like a dog around its prey. But after a moment Godric must have decided Edric had nothing useful to offer, after all, for he reined his horse away. “Well,” he said. “Let’s go and find out.”
** END OF EXCERPT **