Last Tales of Mercia 2: Richard the Norman

When King Edward calls on his allies for military support, the Norman lord Richard FitzScrob must take drastic measures to make his Saxon subjects obedient.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

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Whereupon [Goodwin] began to gather forces over all his earldom, and Earl Sweyne, his son, over his; and Harold, his other son, over his earldom: and they assembled all in Gloucestershire, at Langtree, a large and innumerable army, all ready for battle against the king; unless Eustace and his men were delivered to them handcuffed, and also the Frenchmen that were in the castle.

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1051

LUDLOW, SHROPSHIRE

September 1051 A.D.

“I am very sorry, my lord,” mumbled the vassal. “But I’ll have the rent for you next week, once we have finished storing the harvest.”

Richard FitzScrob twisted his gloves with his large hands, finding the fabric more useful as a casualty of his anger than protection from the autumn chill. He would have much preferred venting some of his rage upon this hapless churl who most deserved it. Dougal was a so-called “free-man,” according to the Anglo-Saxon custom, which meant he could own land and entertain his own life beyond the limited duties he owed his landlord. But again and again the tenant had fallen short of his responsibilities to Lord Richard, such as maintaining the fences for Richard’s livestock or giving alms to the church on Richard’s estate. Now, for the first time, Dougal had failed to fulfill his single-most important liberty as a churl: paying rent.

Richard shifted in his chair, thinking it would be nice to stand and loom over the kneeling Saxon. Then he remembered that his crooked feet ached quite acutely today. He glanced at one of his squires, Ralph, to step forward and loom in his place. The young Norman was a promising warrior who wore chainmail on a regular basis and had a way of standing that thrust out the pommel of his sword and made it the most noticeable trait of his figure. The squire walked forward, making his feet thunder on the floorboards even though he was not a particularly large man, and assumed the proper pose. Ralph even rested his hand on the hilt of his weapon in a way that made him look both casual and battle-ready at once.

The Saxon churl gulped and grew a notch paler. This response satisfied Richard, who overcame his rage enough to speak with a low, calm candor. “I feel I have been rather lenient with you,” said the landlord, “in an attempt to make up for my ignorance as a foreigner.” Dougal frowned a little, straining to listen, and Richard realized this must be due to the thickness of Richard’s Norman accent. Richard gritted his teeth with frustration, then raised his voice a few notches, even though this did nothing to solve the problem. “But now I think I understand your English customs well enough to say that you have abused the privileges of your freedom and therefore we should change our arrangement.”

“Please, my lord—!”

Ralph shifted slightly, just enough to remind the Saxon of his presence, which effectively shut Dougal’s mouth. But a flare of anger lit the Saxon’s eyes, and Richard recognized it immediately for its true nature. What Dougal hated more than anything was not his personal misfortune. He hated that he paid his dues to a Norman lord who had only lived in Engla-lond for a few years. He silently believed the Normans were common bullies who did not deserve their high station—just as all of Richard’s native tenants assumed.

Richard sighed, regretting the tone that this conversation had so quickly adopted. “Listen, Dougal. I want to be fair to you. Here is what I propose. You are what is known as a geneat—do I say that correctly?”

Dougal nodded glumly.

“To take care of your rent, we can change your status to a kotsetla.” Richard desperately searched his brain for all the legalities tied to this position. “You will no longer pay rent. Instead you will work for me whenever I require you. Right now, as there is still some work left to do from the harvest, I will want you here three days a week. I will either have you work in the field, or the stables; I will even let you choose which you prefer. Throughout the year, you will always work for me at least one day a week. And this service will replace your rent.”

The look of shock on the Saxon’s face pleased Richard. Surely Dougal was astounded by Richard’s kindness. Surely he would thank Richard for overlooking his past mistakes and giving him work to do, even though he had demonstrated poor skills in the past. In truth, working on Richard’s estate would give him a chance to improve his own skills, especially if he worked in the stables. The Anglo-Saxons were far behind the Normans in most crafts, but especially the training of horse-flesh.

Richard thought with certainty that these were the thoughts going through Dougal’s mind. But then he got a shock of his own. The Saxon stood up and yelled, “My land will be my own one day! You won’t take it away from me!”

Before the rage struck, Richard reeled in a state of bewilderment. “Quoi?

Tears actually glittered in Dougal’s eyes. “I will work my own land. I will nurture it and I will buy it someday. I will become a thegn like my father before me and—”

“For God’s sake!” Richard wanted to stand and knock this churl’s teeth out. Dougal wanted to work his “own” land? Land that belonged to Richard? Land that had been granted to him from King Edward himself? His hands raked the table so harshly he felt a splinter thrust into his palm. Sensing his mood, Ralph grabbed the hilt of his sword. This was just enough to help Richard stay his temper a little bit longer. He clenched his jaws so hard his head ached, but he managed to hiss through his teeth, “I will give you one more week to pay your rent, plus a little extra for being late. Work it out with my reeve, Bartholomew, before you go home. But if you can’t pay, I expect you to be here, working in my fucking stables!

“Yes, my lord. Yes, yes. I’ll pay you next week. I will.” At last, a cloud of humility softened Dougal’s gaze, though it was not enough to abate Richard’s wrath. He only sent Dougal to work out the details with Bartholomew because if he looked at Dougal’s filthy face much longer, he might pummel it into the floorboards. Dougal must have sensed this, for he finally bowed low and shuffled out of the hall.

Richard sat there a long while, breathing heavily through his nose, clenching the wooden table with his fingers. Ralph waited quietly by, fidgeting a little, for as long as he could endure the silence.

“Well, my lord,” quipped the squire, “I think you handled that surprisingly well. Soon they’ll be calling you Richard the merciful!”

Ralph’s attempts at optimism did not always work on Richard; sometimes, they stoked his anger to the blazing point. But unexpectedly, Richard found himself nodding with agreement, the ball of anxiety in his stomach uncoiling. “I hope that is the case,” he replied. “I hope they will see that I am not the tyrant they imagine me to be.”

“Sure, as long as this Dougal fellow doesn’t fuck up his chance at redemption.”

Richard preferred not to think about that possibility.

And so the two men remained in the dim hall, saying nothing, listening to the dogs whine in their sleep and the air grumble with the promise of a storm. The last thing Richard needed right now was rain to soak the remaining crops, muddy the fields, and lower his laborers’ spirits. But it seemed to rain a lot here in Engla-lond. Surely enough, another burst of thunder cracked above, followed by the hiss of rain through the single window of Richard’s hall. The window was covered with vellum to let in light and keep back water, but after a few moments, a drip plopped down from the ceiling above.

Richard thought longingly of the castle where he once dwelt in Normandy. He had taken for granted the stone walls of his keep, free from the stench of wood, be it pungently fresh or bitterly molded. The structures of his homeland were cleaner and stronger, built from the ground up with great care and skill so that they did not constantly require maintenance or repairs. How he ached sometimes for the security of his old home, the strength and nobility of its foundation, and the confidence that it was his own and he had earned his place despite the curse of crooked feet. He also missed the warm presence of his wife in his bed, though he hastily brushed that thought away. He knew now more than ever that she had been right to choose Normandy over Engla-lond, for her own sake.

The door of their meager hall swung open, spraying rain across the threshold. Richard turned to see one of his Norman knights, Sir Geoffrey, walking in from the downpour. He was a quiet man who generally did what he was told and never asked questions, which Richard appreciated, even if the knight’s sharp golden eyes and mysterious demeanor sometimes unsettled him. His presence was unexpected, as he had his own meager piece of land and Saxon churls to do his bidding, such as carry messages to Lord Richard FitzScrob.

“What brings you here on a day like this, Geoffrey?” grumbled Richard.

The knight dripped as he walked to Richard, though he seemed undisturbed by the rain as a smile wound up his face. He pulled a scroll from his tunic, still dry and unwrinkled. Richard’s eyes widened as he recognized the king’s seal.

“The letter will explain further,” said Geoffrey, “but I can tell you this much: King Edward has summoned us to war.”

*

Dark brown hair fell in chunks into the grass as the servant swept the knife over Osbern’s skull. The twelve-year-old endured the scraping with a firm expression, never flinching, even though his nose had turned red with the chill of the autumn breeze. By the set of his jaw, the young Norman already seemed to picture himself on top of a horse, wielding a sword, and glaring down at the rebellious churls underfoot.

Osbern’s maple eyes widened when he spotted his father approaching. Richard usually did not roam around his estate unless on horseback. Normally, if he wanted to talk to someone, he sent a servant to bring that person to him. Walking with his clubbed feet on uneven terrain could lead him to fall and embarrass himself. Today, the morning after he had received his letter from King Edward, he used his cane to aid him. He felt as if he could go anywhere and do anything. A gust of wind made him grunt and stagger slightly, but soon enough he righted himself and kept going.

“Father! How do I look?” asked Osbern FitzRichard in Norman.

Richard moved closer to survey his son’s haircut. The Saxon who trimmed it clearly did not know the Norman fashion, but he had tried his best to follow Richard’s instructions. The front half of Osbern’s head still possessed a dark mop of hair slicked backward; meanwhile the back half of his skull formed a clean sweeping line down his neck, wholly hairless. Richard smiled, then answered him in English. “You look like a man ready for battle.”

Osbern grinned from ear to ear, then jumped up from his stool, brushing severed locks of hair from his shoulders. Like Richard, he was born with imperfect legs, but only one of his feet was crooked, so he stood sturdily enough on the other. He still had the body of a boy, but he was growing tall quickly, and he possessed the broad shoulders and thick bones of his father. “So I will get to fight, then?”

“English, Osbern. English!” Richard waved at the Saxon servant, who gladly scurried away. Richard leaned forward on his cane and lowered his voice. “If you don’t learn to act and think like one of them, they’ll never see you as one of them.”

“But … then why did I get this haircut?” Osbern spoke in awkward, halting English, made even more clumsy by the fact he grew anxious.

“Because it serves a practical purpose. Normans wear shirts of chainmail with coifs covering their neck and heads, unlike the Saxons. If you had long hair like the rest of them it would get stuck in the links!” Explaining it this way made Richard more frustrated. Most Norman customs served a practical purpose, so this argument would not work for everything.

Osbern did not realize this, however, so he lowered his head and looked duly chastised.

Richard sighed. “You asked if you will get to fight. I’ve decided you can ride with us to Lundenburg. If there is battle, I will want you to stay far from danger. But you’re of age now. It is time you saw true combat.”

“Yes, Father!” Osbern grinned from ear to ear. “Will we fight Vikings?”

“No, no. The situation is a little more sensitive than that, as I tried to tell you last night.” He had been so busy making preparations yesterday evening, such as sending out summons to his tenants and calling for supplies, that perhaps he had neglected explaining everything to Osbern. “Do you remember Earl Goodwin of Wessex?”

“I think so. The pot-bellied man?”

Richard considered cuffing Osbern over the head for a remark like that. He didn’t like it when people reduced their conception of others to physical traits alone. It made him worry that they thought the same way about him. But in this case, Goodwin was their enemy, so he let the comment go. “Earl Goodwin is the most powerful lord in Engla-lond next to King Edward himself. But he has offended the king by refusing to punish some Saxons who got in a fight with one of King Edward’s guests. The Saxon fought with a Norman, Count Eustace of Boulougne, the step-father of our friend Lord Mantes. Do you follow?”

Osbern took a few moments to ponder this. His little brow furrowed in thought. Richard waited for so long he nearly gave up on hearing a response. Then Osbern blurted, “And Lord Mantes has been arguing with Swein, Earl Goodwin’s son. Another reason for us to hate Goodwin’s family!”

“Very good!” Richard was genuinely surprised. He didn’t know Osbern had been paying such close attention. “So you see that we need to show our support of the king right now, not only for his sake, but our own. Goodwin is using this opportunity to challenge all of the king’s Norman allies. We must remind everyone of our right to be here, as well as our ongoing devotion to King Edward.”

“Yes. But … what right do we have to be here?”

Richard’s blood rose suddenly to a searing temperature. He couldn’t believe that question had just come from his own son’s mouth. “We protected King Edward while his fellow English cast him out for a Viking! If not for us Engla-lond would probably be ruled by more Viking bastards at this fucking moment!”

Osbern had paled at the sound of his father’s yelling. Then he gulped and said, “Right. So we are going to stab Earl Goodwin through his pot-bellied gut.”

“Damn right we will!”

Osbern’s grin returned. “So when do we leave?”

“Very soon, if all our subjects arrive on time today. Perhaps we should we check with Bartholomew and see if they’re all here yet.”

The servants’ quarters were in a squat cabin across from Richard’s own hall. It took him a good while to walk there, and he hated that Osbern slowed his own pace to keep up with his father. Fortunately, as long as Richard focused on the upcoming glory of leading his first Anglo-Saxon army—or, as they called it, a fyrd—to battle, he could ignore all relative discomforts.

Before they reached the servants’ cabin, they passed the stables. Richard stopped and nudged Osbern towards it. “While we’re here I want to show you something. Go on in.”

Together they entered the thick atmosphere of the stables, which stung their noses with the stench of hay and manure. Even though Richard knew the smell should be unpleasant, it always brought him comfort, for it transported him to some of his earliest memories of Normandy, saddling and supplying his war-horse for the first time. Now he hoped to give Osbern a similar experience. He waited until their eyes could adjust to the dimness of the barn, then pointed to a horse several stalls down.

“There. The brown one. Do you see?”

Osbern approached slowly, reverently. The young mare hung her head over the stable door, nostrils flaring as Osbern limped closer. He reached out a hand and she flinched, then brushed her muzzle across his fingers. Osbern’s eyes twinkled with delight.

“She is still young and inexperienced, but she has begun her training as a Norman war-horse. She will be as useful a weapon to you in battle as your sword or spear. Her hooves can break through barriers and knock men to the ground. More importantly …” He cleared his throat self-consciously. “She will be your legs, whenever you need them.”

Osbern nodded gravely, understanding. “Merci, mon père.”

“Now let’s see to our fyrd-men.”

They finished their walk to the servants’ quarters, where Richard expected to find his new soldiers gathered.

At first, Richard thought he had walked into the wrong building, for it was utterly silent inside. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he only saw empty cots and blankets. It appeared as if everyone had gathered their things and run away with them. The raised fire in the middle of the hall lay dark and ashen. He suspected no one had been here all morning.

“That’s strange,” said Richard. “Perhaps Bartholomew has taken them elsewhere.”

They moved back outside, only to find Bartholomew walking towards them. The small reeve stopped and gawked at them, ashen-faced.

“Bartholomew?” Rising anger grated the edge of Richard’s voice. “Where is everyone? What’s going on?”

“I … I … I don’t know, my lord. They told me they would be here. They told me they would have their supplies together and …”

Bartholomew continued rambling in search of an explanation, but Richard could barely hear him through the roar of anger in his ears. He took deep, heaving breaths in an attempt to dispel it. The presence of his son helped him find his patience. “Perhaps we did not give them enough time,” he interjected. “Perhaps if we just wait a little longer …”

The thunder of hoofbeats reverberated up Richard’s ankles. He turned to see Sir Geoffrey riding closer, along with a few other knights and Norman tenants. They should have been arriving with a host of reinforcements, but instead only a few surly stragglers rode behind them. Perhaps there were only a dozen men in all.

Staying his accusations, Richard waited until one of his knights, Fulbert, came forward. The older man was one of his favorite vassals in Normandy, though ever since he moved to Engla-lond, he was more prone to quiet contemplation than active servitude. “My lord, the Saxon thegns have abandoned us.”

Richard staggered in place. Osbern, who must have worried that his father would fall, reached out to steady him. Richard struck him away so hard that Osbern stumbled to the ground, and Richard might have lost his own balance if not for his cane. The fact Osbern actually fell only angered him further. Given Osbern’s one good foot, he should have had better balance than his father.

Trying to ignore the blunder, Richard looked back to his men. This turn of events was so inconceivable he struggled to form a response. “How can that be? You mean they’re just gone?”

“We believe the fyrd-men and Saxon thegns rode off to join Swein, son of Earl Goodwin.”

“WHAT? Their families too?”

Fulbert gulped. “Their families hide in their homes for now. Did you want us to … punish them?”

Richard felt dizzy. How could this be happening? He had been kind and patient with his Saxon tenants. He had done everything he could to bend to their ways and keep them content. Now they would not even ride with him to support their own king in battle. Instead they rode to the defense of Earl Goodwin, a man who stood blatantly against the Norman allies of King Edward.

For a moment he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say. His world seemed to unravel. If he punished the families of the men who rode with Swein Goodwinson, they would never forgive him. But if he did not, they would live forever believing they could defy him and get away with it. That was something he could not abide. Either way, he could not afford to lose the fyrd-men permanently. He had not brought enough Normans with him to create his own army.

“Suzerain?”

His men waited for a response from him, some master plan that would help them all save face before King Edward. Even Osbern, chastised by his blow, looked expectantly at his father from beneath his droopy brow.

Richard searched his men’s faces desperately. How did they feel about this? What did they want? His gaze landed on that of Sir Geoffrey, the quiet man who brought him news of the war, and whose cold golden eyes sent a chill to his bones. Why was Geoffrey so calm? What was his secret? And then Richard realized something even stranger: of the few Saxons who had ridden here today with the Normans, they all sat closest to Geoffrey.

“You,” Richard called. “Geoffrey. How did you recruit so many?”

For a moment, Geoffrey actually looked abashed. His fellow Normans refused to look at him. At last he said, “I threatened them and their families, Suzerain.”

Richard did not doubt it. He also did not like receiving confirmation that fear would be the only effective tool against his Saxon tenants. He had been too gracious to those under his care. And this was how they repaid his kindness.

Merde,” he snarled, and curled his fingers into fists. Then he sent his voice booming across his manor. “We should not delay our journey. But when we return, we will take care of this!”

He would let his anger cool somewhat. But he strongly suspected it would not go away.

*

“When do we get to fight?”

“I don’t know, Osbern.”

“Will it be soon?”

“I don’t know!

The only times Richard escaped his son’s impatience was when he made his way to the king’s council, leaving Osbern in the streets of Lundenburg with his trusted knights. Nevertheless, he really couldn’t blame Osbern for such restlessness. After only a short while in Lundenburg, Richard came to realize that King Edward’s summons had not been a call to war so much as a way to showcase the size of his army.

Lord Goodwin had amassed a large fyrd to rival King Edward’s, but both sides were reluctant to fight one another. The English nobles on each side were long familiar with each other and maintained ongoing respect despite their differences. When King Edward pressured Goodwin’s thegns to honor their old oaths to the king of Engla-lond, many of them relented. Goodwin’s forces gradually deteriorated. King Edward and Lord Goodwin exchanged hostages and attempted negotiations.

The abundance of King Edward’s troops, along with the constant demands of court, distracted the king from noticing the insufficiency of Richard’s own little fyrd—a fact for which Richard was grateful. His neighboring Normans did notice, however, and though they said nothing, their disapproving glances pricked constantly at Richard’s pride. From now on, they would think of him as the crippled Norman who failed to keep a firm hand on his Saxon tenants.

The next day at the king’s council, Goodwin demanded more hostages from the king and would not enter Lundenburg until he received them. At the advice of Richard and the other nobles of the council, King Edward refused. He sent an envoy back to Goodwin telling him he had five days to leave the coast of Engla-lond in peace with his family.

Earl Goodwin complied.

The king dismissed his council, and as Richard prepared to leave, he found himself relieved. He thought perhaps his failure in this case would go largely unnoticed and altogether unpunished. He shuffled slowly to the door, waiting for the other nobles to leave first, so that he would not risk tripping amongst them.

“Richard FitzScrob.”

Richard’s heart froze against his ribs as the king’s soft, chiming voice rang through the chamber. It was just the two of them now; everyone else was gone. A ring of torches in the room allowed him to watch his own shadow flickering around him, contorted into that of a hideous monster’s. He turned around slowly.

“My liege.”

“Please, sit back down.”

Richard heard his own teeth grating together. Did King Edward think Richard could not manage to stand just a few extra minutes on his twisted feet? “No need, my lord.”

King Edward smiled sweetly, the soft down of his beard spreading across his cheeks. The man had a delicacy about him that harmonized with his profound gentleness, so exuberant it emasculated almost anyone in its range. “Thank you for your advice these last few days.”

“Of course.”

“Politics here can be so very … messy, sometimes. As if no one really knows his place. I try to think of this problem as a practice in my own humility. But a king cannot always be humble, would you agree?”

“Yes, of course he cannot.”

“That is why I miss Normandy sometimes. Do you?”

Richard hesitated, then bowed his head. “Sometimes, yes.”

“I think Normans like you can help my people. You can teach them order and discipline. You can remind them that nobility and privilege exist for a reason. That first and foremost, one’s loyalty should be to one’s king, and secondly to those who do his bidding—not wayward earls like Goodwin.”

“I couldn’t agree more, my liege.”

“Good. In that case, I have to ask you: do you need any … help, up there in Shropshire?”

A stone seemed to lodge in Richard’s throat. Edward’s eyes had flicked, ever so briefly, towards Richard’s feet. The glance was so quick and fleeting that Richard hoped he had imagined it. But then he knew by the way Edward held himself—by the way he suddenly avoided Richard’s gaze—that the king was making a point of his big clubbed feet.

His fists clenched at his sides. He felt the muscles of his arms twisting into knots. Then it took a great deal of effort to pry his jaws apart so he might speak, rather than grind his teeth to powder. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t need any help.”

“Where you reside, you’re practically in Herefordshire. I’m sure Lord Mantes would be happy to lend you some—”

“I don’t. Need. Help.”

Their eyes met. For a moment even the gentle king seemed irritated that Richard would interrupt him, as well he should be. But Richard lifted his large chin and did not back down.

“Next time you require my services,” said Richard, “I will ride with all of Shropshire to your banner.”

Edward hesitated, then nodded. “Thank you, Richard. I pray that you are so successful. Dismissed.”

Richard bowed. Then he walked from the room, expending all his strength into ignoring the bite of pain in his ankles so that he might do so proudly.

*

Shortly after returning home, Richard sent his squire Ralph to keep watch over the smaller manors under his lordship, where the families of wayward fyrd-men still huddled in their wooden huts. When the first treacherous tenant returned home from service to Lord Goodwin, Ralph rode back to Richard and informed him immediately.

Richard called forth all his loyal men. He told them to arm themselves and prepare their horses. To one man he gave two horses and a wagon, which would follow behind the others.

As Osbern rode with the retinue towards the distant farmhouse, he remained dubious. His disappointment caused by his dull trip to Lundenburg made the boy unwilling to hope he might ever see action.

“Son. Have you sharpened your sword lately?”

Oui. I mean, yes.”

“Good. I don’t want you to use it yet. But I want you to be prepared, all the same.”

The faintest gleam alighted in Osbern’s dark eyes. “To fight?”

Oui.”

Osbern smiled, his hand gripping the pommel of his small sword readily.

When they neared the little farmhouse, Richard pulled his horse to a stop, making all his men wait with him. He looked upon the sagging Saxon hut, the sheep in the fields, and the soft tendril of smoke drifting from the cabin to the sunrise. Two young children, a boy and a girl, played outside with the dogs. He thought he heard faint laughter resounding from within the little home. He wondered if the husband and wife were trying to find some privacy before they came out to begin their work. When Richard inhaled deeply, he smelled bread and wool, two common staples of a quaint Saxon home.

“My lord?” Sir Fulbert, who held a burning torch, looked at his lord expectantly.

As Richard exhaled, he accepted that nothing would be the same after this. His tenants had always thought of him as a tyrant. Now he would have to be one.

He nudged his horse and rode closer.

When the kids spotted the dark shapes thundering through the fields, they hurried inside, where there soon resounded a great bit of yelling and shuffling around. Then out stepped the tenant, still tying his belt around his tunic, blinking with shock and dismay at the sight of twelve mounted Normans with torches at his doorstep.

In the orange glare of the dawn, Richard recognized the man’s gawking face as Dougal’s, the same pathetic soul who had been late paying his rent.

“Dougal.” Richard squeezed his horse’s saddle with his gloves and shifted so that a loud creak from the leather indicated his bulk upon the beast. Steam blasted from the stallion’s flaring nostrils as it snorted. “I hear that you ran off to join Goodwin’s fyrd instead of King Edward’s.”

Even the hues of twilight could not give color to Dougal’s pale, bloodless face. The Saxon trembled as he fell to one knee. “Th-that’s not true. I only went … to town. T-to Shrewsbury, yes. And it took me a few days to … to gather the supplies I needed.”

Richard glanced at his squire, Ralph, who had witnessed Dougal’s return. “He’s lying, Suzerain,” said the squire in Norman. “I saw him return from the south. And he was dressed for battle.”

Dougal watched this exchange with terror blazing in his eyes. Even if Ralph did not have such a clear case against the tenant, the look on Dougal’s face confirmed the truth. “You could have stayed home,” said Richard in a low voice. “I did not even ask for your service, for I knew you needed time to get rent. Instead, you felt so strongly for your cause—a cause rejecting the hospitality of your Norman allies—that you ran off to battle anyway under the banner of Goodwin the exiled.”

“No …. No please, you don’t understand! Please …!”

The man was nearly hysterical now, bowing low in the mud and pulling at his hair. He already knew he was doomed. For a moment, it irritated Richard that this man was so afraid of him, even though Richard had never given him cause to be. Now, Richard would validate that terror.

He nodded to Fulbert, who rode closer to the house with his torch raised high. Then he wound back his arm to fling it.

“NO! WAIT!”

Richard raised a hand to his knight, relieved. Indeed, he had no desire to burn down a perfectly good cabin on his own plot of land. But he needed to show the tenant he was serious. “If you wish to keep your place on my estate,” he roared, “you will provide me with one slave of your choosing from your family.”

His wife gathered the children about her skirts. Richard took note of them. The young girl with a knot of yellow hair on her head looked to be about six or seven years old. The boy was only about five.

“The slave will be provided for,” Richard pointed out. “And when the time comes, freedom can be purchased.”

As Dougal realized the futility of resistance, his body went limp with defeat. He looked to his wife, whose eyes shimmered with tears. Then they both looked at the children.

Richard tried not to squirm with impatience. The day might be young, but he would have to visit many homes today, and he would have to do it as quickly as possible, so that no one could prepare to put up a fight. He considered giving Dougal a countdown.

But at last a sorrowful groan raked out of the Saxon’s throat. “Audrey,” he groaned.

The mother crouched down and clutched her daughter tightly, tears pouring down her cheeks. Richard quickly surmised that Audrey was the seven-year-old girl. Dougal’s choice came as no surprise. She would be of less use to them than the boy until she came of age to marry. And if they hoped to ever have enough money to purchase Audrey’s freedom—not to mention this land Dougal so desired—both parents would need to stay and work the farm.

The girl, to Richard’s surprise, cried the least of anyone. Instead, she stood sturdily as her family collapsed around her. A scowl twisted the soft features of her face. For a moment, her eyes met Richard’s, gleaming with anger.

“When will you take her?” rasped Dougal.

“Now.” Richard pointed to the back of his retinue. “She can climb into that wagon.”

Richard waited for them make their teary goodbyes for as long as he could stomach watching. Dougal didn’t seem to realize he was lucky to come out of this with his entire family still alive. A girl so young would probably not earn even her scant provisions until a few years from now. For a moment, Richard felt sickened by his own magnanimity. He would need to take a firmer hand with his remaining tenants and select the recruits himself. If he had a household full of young female slaves, he would never accomplish his goal.

“What will she do for you?” asked Dougal, as if glimpsing Richard’s thoughts.

Richard smiled, proud of his readied response. He was finally going to make this sorry country into a proper home for his family. “She shall help me build my castle.”

*

RELEASING JUNE 12:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

This story is a work of fiction strongly inspired by real events. It is a creative interpretation of what might have and could have been, not necessarily what was. Please note that while the Normans would have spoken an old Norman language, I use modern French to represent their dialect.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as compiled by various monks until the year 1140, were my primary sources of information. So, too, were the Chronicles of Florence of Worcester and the Chronicles of the Kings of England as written by William of Malmesbury. Without the devotion of these men to chronicle the chaotic events of their time, so little of the Dark Ages would be known.

 For a long list of characters and their histories, visit http://www.jaydenwoods.com/Characters.html

 Special thanks to these sources for this story:

  • Remfry, Paul Martin. Richard’s Castle 1048 to 1219. SCS Publishing. 1997.

  • Williams, Ann. The English and the Norman Conquest. Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1995.

To view a full list of sources, read the bottom-right column of this blog.

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