Written by Jayden Woods
Edited by Malcolm Pierce
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.
Life tingled back into Elwyna’s limbs as she chewed on the freshly-cooked venison. The first swallow of meat flowed down her throat, filled up her chest, and then crushed the ache in her stomach until it dissolved completely. Despite herself, a little groan of pleasure escaped her throat. She looked with embarrassment at Dumbun, whose grin sent her into a fit of laughter.
She could not remember the last time she had laughed so gleefully. Dumbun often tried to make her smile, but lately, anxiety and fear smothered any fleeting mirth. For the last few months now she hadn’t known whether she and Dumbun would have enough food to last through the winter. When she awoke at dawn today, she could not will herself to crawl out of bed until mid-morning. Even then her limbs were stiff with cold, her stomach gnawed on itself, and she felt as if heavy weights dragged upon her chilled bones. A week ago, she had sold one of the few items of leisure remaining from her days as the wife of Thegn Godric: a large, woolen blanket. Her primary source of nightly warmth purchased her and Dumbun enough food to last a fortnight, if strictly rationed.
The cruelest aspect of this winter, however, was the crushing feeling of regret that accompanied her misfortune. Many years ago, she had been the daughter of a successful thegn, Lord Lindsey, who once served Ealdorman Eadric Streona as an intimate hearth companion. Political entanglements cast him from courtly favor. To make matters worse, his loyalty to the dead Eadric Streona obligated him to give Elwyna to Eadric’s bastard son Godric in marriage, even though Godric had no land or titles to begin with. Elwyna had been furious at the time. Even when her father died and Godric rose to the status of a higher thegn, she continued to resent her miserable marriage. And so one winter while Godric was away, she began an affair with their slave, Dumbun.
She could not explain, even now, why she had fallen in love with Dumbun of all people. The very traits she despised in her husband—his cryptic silence, his lowly status—Dumbun exuded tenfold. He never spoke at all and he was an impoverished slave. Perhaps she liked the fact she had no expectations for Dumbun from the start, and never would. Perhaps he attracted her because even though he never spoke, she could always see the truth in his eyes. His silence was not a torment he purposefully inflicted on her; it was a torment he inflicted upon himself, of which she one day hoped to free him. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dumbun had a gentle, submissive spirit. He would do anything to serve her. If she insisted on something, he would do it.
In this way, he differed from her husband most greatly.
When Godric discovered Elwyna’s affair, he cast her from his home and his local community, never to see her again. Elwyna had fled with Dumbun to the woods where they built a humble home for themselves. Whoever owned this land had not discovered them all this while. And so she had been relatively happy with Dumbun for years, accepting her punishment for neglecting her past blessings and trying her best to find happiness in whatever good fortune now came her way.
But it had never been so hard to remain happy as this winter. A few bad strokes of luck had left them almost completely without food. On the nights she lay imprisoned by the cold and helpless with hunger, she could not help but wonder if she should have never run off with Dumbun, but instead stayed within the safety of her marriage with Godric. And those were the most painful moments of all, for they made her feel as if she betrayed Dumbun, and thus her own bruised spirit.
Today, Dumbun’s lucky encounter with a deer laid all her worries to rest. At last, the pain of regret receded, and she wondered if she had ever been so happy as this very moment, feasting with her lover by the central hearthfire.
“I wonder if we should sell any of it,” said Elwyna. “Someone desperate might give us a great deal of money for fresh meat. At the very least, we could get a new blanket.”
Dumbun’s eyes darkened, a frown tilting the weathered features of his face. He gave a simple shake of his head, then made a ridiculous scooping motion towards his meal with both hands, chomping his mouth up and down as if to eat more than what was on his plate.
Elwyna wanted to laugh, but she felt a twinge of disappointment. She had hoped that having something to trade would give her an excuse to go to town again. She saw people so rarely these days. But she didn’t have much of a choice on the matter. Godric had cast her out; most people knew who she was and of what she was accused, and she could not hide her identity very easily. Her bright red hair often gave her away. “I suppose you’re right,” she said. “We need all the meat we can get. And perhaps we can use the deer hide as a blanket.”
She returned to her meal, determined not to focus on anything else but how delicious it tasted.
Then a knock shook the door of their abode.
Both Elwyna and Dumbun froze with terror. Elwyna stopped breathing. Then she felt the burn of fear inside, like hot water spilling through her stomach, and her heart beat so fast she felt it thud against her ribcage.
The knock came again. Then a man’s voice grumbled through the wood, his words distorted by a thick accent. “We know you’re in there. Let us in.”
Dumbun reached for the axe lying under their cot. Elwyna put up her hand to stop him. They should not resort to violence unless necessary. Nevertheless, she situated her dirk against her hip for easy access and tried to minimize its presence by gathering the folds of her skirt. Then she took a deep breath and stood.
Her heart wouldn’t stop hammering. Perhaps whoever owned this forest had finally discovered their cabin. Perhaps her life here with Dumbun would be ruined forever, and she would be cast out again, into even worse circumstances than before. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the visitors—he had said “we”—were only a couple of travelers passing through, with no idea that Elwyna and Dumbun lived here unlawfully.
She opened the door.
On the other side stood two men with hoods over their heads and thick cloaks around their shoulders. Their clothes were strange to Elwyna, for their cloaks were short and their tunics unusually long. But this did not attract her attention so much as the swords hanging from each of their hips. Two horses stood tethered to the trees nearby, their fur collecting a thin layer of powder from the drifting snow.
The two men did not bother to introduce themselves. They simply pushed Elwyna aside and barged in, bringing a gush of cold air with them. Then they crouched around the hearth and began speaking to each other in another language.
For a moment, Elwyna felt as dumb as her lover. She did not know what to do, what to say, or how to react. It took her a long time just to reach for the door and close it.
The two men continued talking to each other, acting as if they had forgotten the presence of anyone else entirely. Then they picked up the remaining scraps of food and started eating.
This final insult pushed Elwyna to her limit. “Excuse me,” she said. “Excuse me!”
The men stopped and looked at her, irritated by the interruption.
“Who are you?” she demanded at last, hoping they didn’t hear the tremble in her voice.
“I thought it was obvious.” The larger, older man looked generally bored with the situation and very reluctant to speak in English. He wiped his gray beard of the juices from the venison and fixed her with a flat gray stare. “I am Sir Fulbert. This is Drogo, a squire. We serve Lord Richard FitzScrob.” Then, when she continued to stare back at him with a blank expression, “We are Normans.”
He added the last bit as if it explained everything. Elwyna only blinked with confusion. “Normans? But why are you here?”
Sir Fulbert took another bite of venison and frowned at her while chewing. “Why? Because this is Lord Richard’s land. And we have come to find sources of wood for his castle.”
Elwyna gulped. Now she knew the name of the lord who owned these woods. Now the lord would know about her. But these men did not seem to care that they had stumbled upon her cabin unexpectedly. Perhaps the fact they were new to this land would serve to her benefit. They would simply absorb her presence along with everyone else’s, not knowing she didn’t belong.
For a moment, she was so relieved that she forgot about the fact they were stealing her food and taking over her home as if it belonged to them. She even gave them a genuine smile and said, “I apologize that we do not have more food and drink to offer. It has been a hard winter.”
“This will do for now,” said Fulbert. “However, I could use some wine.”
“We don’t have wine. Only …” She caught Dumbun’s gaze suddenly. All this time he had been sitting quietly in the corner, not interfering, enduring this insult as she did. But anger twisted his normally-gentle face, and the flinch of his body made her realize she should not tell them about their precious store of ale.
Sir Fulbert looked from Elwyna, to Dumbun, and back again. “Quoi?”
Elwyna trembled slightly. She couldn’t deny it now. Sir Fulbert would detect her lie. And she didn’t want to test his reaction. “We have only a little bit of ale.”
“I see.” Sir Fulbert took a deep breath. Then he finished the plate of venison and leaned back against the wall, staring wearily into the fire. “Never mind, then. You can save it.”
Elwyna gave a shuddering exhale of relief. Was he actually being polite, or did he simply not want ale? Either way, she felt profoundly grateful.
For the first time, her eyes focused on the second Norman—the squire, Drogo. He was a short but stocky young man, his neck thick with muscle. Now that his hood had fallen down, she noticed his strange haircut; the back of his skull was mostly shaved, leaving a thick shock of blond hair on the top of his head. The oils from the venison gleamed wetly on his shaven chin. His crisp brown eyes gave a startling contrast to his pale complexion, and she found the intensity with which he stared at her unsettling. As their eyes met, Drogo smiled, then his eyes roved down her body.
Chills crawled down Elwyna’s back, but she tried to ignore them and hide her discomfort. At about forty years old, she thought she might be twice the squire’s age, but he didn’t seem to notice. She had always been a small sort of woman who appeared younger than her years. She looked down at herself, all too aware of the ragged state of her dress and the long, unkempt tangles of her red hair. A rip in the top of her dress revealed some of her chest. Meanwhile her stomach grumbled with hunger, but she preferred moving to the wall and sitting next to it than drawing more attention to herself by cooking more meat. She sat close to Dumbun, but resisted the urge to lean against him.
Drogo nudged Fulbert, then said something in Norman while staring at Elwyna and Dumbun. Fulbert followed his companion’s gaze. Then he said something back, and both of them laughed.
Elwyna’s cheeks grew hot with anger. Her feelings of injustice towards the entire situation resurfaced. What could they be saying?
The Normans kept talking for a while, their laughs growing louder and louder. Elwyna wished she could bury her head under the floorboards in order to stop listening. The fact she couldn’t understand what they were saying only made her imagine the worst possibilities. Then Drogo seemed to ask the knight a question.
“What are your names?” translated Sir Fulbert.
“I am Elwyna. This is Dumbun.”
“Why does he not speak for himself?”
“He does not talk.”
Drogo leered. Then he spoke in stilted English, jabbing his finger at each of them. “Husband? Wife?”
Her heart raced again. She glanced briefly at Dumbun, wondering what he would say if he could speak. But he only glared at the intruders, offering no indication of what to do. “Brother and sister,” she blurted at last, without knowing why. After all, it seemed better than the truth, which was that they could not marry because she had betrayed her true husband for her slave, and they had no children because God had cursed her with a barren womb.
The Normans sat quietly a moment, then burst out laughing again.
She decided to let them laugh. She convinced herself that their ridicule could not harm her. Tomorrow they would resume searching the woods for trees for their “castle,” then hopefully they would be gone. Enduring this mockery was a small price to pay for the crimes of which she might be accused. But as she turned aside and tried to lose her thoughts in the waning fire, she could not dispel the sensation that her blood was boiling.
During the night, she regretted telling the Normans that Dumbun was her brother. She wanted nothing more than for Dumbun to press his body against hers, wrap his arm around her waist, and breathe softly against her neck. Instead she lay alone, shivering against the floorboards without even a blanket to shield her from the cold. Within the comfort of his cloak, Sir Fulbert sent a rumbling snore through the timbers of the cabin. The knight had taken the cot for himself, and even though he had brought a blanket, he used it to cover the horses outside. Elwyna’s only relief was to move closer and closer to the remaining hearth fire, its dim red glow slightly thawing her skin.
When a warm hand brushed her arm, relief washed over her. She thought Dumbun had come to embrace her, and for a moment she didn’t care whether such an action put them at risk. Then an unfamiliar smell burned her nose, like horses and leather, and the hand’s grip on her tightened. She turned to see the smiling face of Drogo, who released her only to put his warning finger against his lips. She lay petrified as he continued to advance, his hand pushing under her arm so he could wrap his fingers round her waist, his body pressing against her so that his torso enveloped her back.
Her shock paralyzed her. What could she do? These Normans already seemed to think they were entitled to her home and belongings, even if they mistook her as a legal tenant. Meanwhile Elwyna was unwed, far beyond marrying age, impoverished, and living with a man they perceived as her idiot brother. Clearly, Drogo took this to mean he was entitled to her, too.
She wondered about Drogo’s companion, Fulbert, who seemed to be his superior. Would he condone Drogo’s behavior? She remembered how he had decided not to drink her ale after seeing the look on her face. Perhaps he would stop Drogo from going too far. But then she thought of the way Fulbert and Drogo had laughed together, often while leering at her unabashedly. She feared the worst. If she tried to wake everyone up, Dumbun would intervene. And then he might getting himself hurt.
Gritting her teeth with fury, Elwyna felt the squire’s lips brush against her neck in the guise of a caress. He planted kisses across her throat. Then he nibbled on her ear. He whispered something in his own language, tickling her skin. Then his hand slid down her stomach and he pressed her towards him.
Elwyna’s stomach turned with a mixture of revulsion and excitement. This man wasn’t just trying to take advantage of her. He was trying to seduce her. She couldn’t help but wonder if in different circumstances, he might have succeeded. But all she could think about was how he had eaten their precious venison as if it belonged to him, and how his chin had gleamed with its juices. Now he had the audacity to try and take her while two other men slept nearby.
For a while she tried to simply endure it, blocking his touch from her mind to the best of her ability. But this only made him more determined to get her attention. He grabbed her breast and kneaded it in his fingers. And when that still wasn’t enough, his hand slid back down her stomach.
Finally, Elwyna responded. She grabbed his hand and wrenched it away from her.
She could practically feel his smile against her neck. He pressed harder against her, and then tried again.
“Stop!” she cried.
She couldn’t help herself. Her panic had begun to set in.
Sir Fulbert’s snoring ceased. Dumbun jerked up and looked at them, startled.
For a moment, Drogo didn’t move, only glared at Dumbun through the ashes of the fire. Then Sir Fulbert sighed heavily.
“Demain, Drogo,” said the knight. “Demain.”
Elwyna did not know their language, but she had a sickening feeling she knew what the older man implied as Drogo withdrew, still smiling.
In the morning, the Normans helped themselves to more of Elwyna and Dumbun’s precious food. Elwyna felt sick to her stomach as she watched Drogo consume a loaf of bread she had acquired when selling her blanket, and which she had hoped to make last a whole week.
Meanwhile, the look on Dumbun’s face frightened her. He had always been a gentle and calm man. But that morning, he glared at Drogo as if his eyes could throw daggers. His hand gripped the dirk on his belt until his knuckles turned white.
Silent or not, Dumbun’s behavior finally drew the Normans’ attention.
Sir Fulbert cleared his throat and addressed the Anglo-Saxon directly. “So, Dumbun, you may not speak, but I take it you can understand me, oui?”
Still gritting his teeth, Dumbun nodded reluctantly.
“Good. You must know these woods well. I want you to show me around today. I have already seen plenty of trees to use. The trick is finding places they can be conveniently chopped down. Can you show me such places?”
Dumbun’s face twisted with concern. He looked at Elwyna.
“How many trees do you plan to chop down?” she asked for him.
“As many as we like. We’ll need wood to build some of the basic foundations of Richard’s Castle until we get enough stone to replace it. And we’ll start by building houses in the bailey, for the workers and all of Richard’s men.”
Elwyna gulped. She didn’t quite understand what a castle looked like. But she was starting to imagine it as rather large. “Sounds like you’ll use a lot of trees. How will the two of you handle them all?”
“Us?” Sir Fulbert laughed. “We’ll send slaves to cut down the woods, once we’ve decided where to do it.”
Despite the winter chill, Elwyna felt sweat bead on her brow. These two Normans wouldn’t just cut down some trees and be on their way. They would start tearing down the entire forest. And they would probably come back to this cabin whenever they pleased to survey the destruction.
Sir Fulbert watched her face closely. “You said your name was Elwyna, oui?”
She gave a terse nod.
“Elwyna. What is your … status?”
She wiped her forehead, hoping to hide the fear in her eyes. “Well, I’m a free woman.”
“Oh? But you don’t own this land. Or we would have known about it.”
She twisted her skirt in her fingers.
“Do you pay rent?” Fulbert pressed, dabbing his lips with a rag.
Elwyna’s silence was answer enough.
“That is going to change now. And you’d better be happy that is the only thing changing.” He threw the rag onto the floor and stood up.
Elwyna knew better than to argue. She remained sitting there, nails digging into her dress, afraid to look at anyone.
“Let’s go, Dumbun,” said Sir Fulbert.
Dumbun stood up, but didn’t go anywhere. He was looking at Drogo, who still sat on the floor.
“Drogo’s not feeling well,” said the older knight. “He’ll stay here.”
Elwyna’s heart nearly leapt from her chest. Before she had a plan, she scrambled to her feet as well. “I should come with you. In fact, with my help you don’t have to go anywhere at all. I can tell you what you need to know.”
“I’ll need to see it. And your help won’t be necessary.”
Dumbun walked over to the bed and his pulled his axe out from under it. For a moment he just gripped it, the iron gleaming as he glared at the Normans.
“I’ll hold onto that, merci.” Sir Fulbert strode forward and wrenched the weapon from Dumbun’s grip.
Elwyna’s mind raced. She had to think of something, not only for her own sake, but Dumbun’s. She feared he would never allow himself to leave her here with Drogo. “In that case,” she said, “I hope you’ll excuse me. I have to run to town.”
“Oh?” The knight blinked at her with genuine surprise.
“Yes. You see, we’re nearly out of food, except for the deer … which I intend to trade.”
The Normans had already glimpsed under her floorboards and seen the truth of this. As soon as Fulbert considered it, he needed no more convincing.
“You’re right. Drogo and I have some more food with us, but …” He reached into his purse and pulled out a coin. Her shock nearly kept her from catching it when he tossed it her direction. “While you’re there, get us some wine, and another loaf of bread.”
For a moment, she felt torn between relief that her ploy had worked and dismay that they might stay another night. Then Drogo got up and yelled at Sir Fulbert in Norman.
Elwyna listened to them argue with an increasing sense of hope. Drogo served the other knight; he would have to do whatever Sir Fulbert told him. Her eyes met Dumbun’s and she tried to give him a reassuring smile. She did not yet know what she would do when she got to town. But she would think of something.
Sir Fulbert stopped arguing with the squire to ask Elwyna, “Can you ride a horse?”
“Good. Then take Drogo’s. And make sure you’re back by tonight.”
Elwyna nodded, not sure how to interpret this. Drogo seemed content now. Would this night be a repeat of the last? Or worse?
She would do herself no favors by standing here and worrying. She needed to accept this small blessing and act on it. “Thank you for letting me use your horse,” she said.
“Not for long,” he snapped. Then he squeezed the axe in his grip, as if to make a point.
She collected a bag of deer meat from the cold ground and hurried on her way. She understood Fulbert’s silent warning completely. If she did anything wayward, Dumbun would be the one to pay the price.
Drogo’s horse, a perky stallion, seemed grateful for a reason to move his legs about. He trotted eagerly as soon as Elwyna released him from the tree and mounted him. She took the blanket from his back and wrapped it around herself like a cloak. Snow shook from his flank as he bounded forward, cracking the icy twigs and grass under his hooves. Together they cut through the golden beams of sunlight that split apart the forest and wove their way through the trees.
As Elwyna approached Shrewsbury, she wondered if she was only delaying the inevitable. What could she possibly do during a quick trip to town that would solve her and Dumbun’s problem? She knew little of current politics, but it seemed evident enough that these Norman men possessed great influence, and once they established their large castle, they would possess even more. What could she do to make them leave her alone?
An idea occurred to her suddenly, one she realized had been lurking under the surface all the while but she had been too afraid to acknowledge until she considered all other options.
Her ex-husband’s name sent a shudder through her body, both unsettling and invigorating. She tried often not to think about him—not to wonder about how he had hid his true nature from her for so many years. He had never wanted to talk to her about his life before their marriage—about the fact he was the son of a terrible traitor, or the fact he had spent his early manhood under the wing of Thorkell the Tall and then served as a house-carl for King Canute himself. The implications of his actions beyond that terrified her even further, but also gave her hope. She sensed that Godric had something to do with the mysterious illness that afflicted King Canute until his death. For many years, Godric bribed the shire reeve to keep Godric’s presence in Shrewsbury a secret from the king.
She knew that Godric was dangerous. She knew that he did not fear authority. She knew he had committed crimes in the past without ever paying the price. And she knew that he might be the only person who could help her out of this problem.
Her dread filled up her belly like a meal of rotten food, but she gritted her teeth and endured it and kept riding in the direction of Godric’s thegndom. She did not know what Godric would think of her after all these years. And worse, she did not know what her own sister would think of her—Godric’s current wife. Elwyna’s hands clenched around the horse’s reins as she recalled that Godric had always loved Osgifu since before he married Elwyna. The younger sister had been a necessary alternative for him when Osgifu joined a nunnery. And now Elwyna would go crawling back to them for help.
As if sensing her reluctance, the horse slowed his pace beneath her. They trotted onto a worn road near Shrewsbury and Elwyna noticed the first few farms through the thinning trees. Her heart stuck in her throat. Normally when she went to town, she avoided Shrewsbury to minimize the risk of meeting someone who recognized her. The frigid wind gusted through the rips of her dress, and she huddled more deeply in the horse’s blanket.
She spotted a man on foot walking towards her and sank even further into the cloth. She wanted to ignore him, to pretend she did not even see him. But despite herself, she could not pull her eyes away; the man wore such brightly colored clothes they demanded her attention. She tried to study him discreetly, noting the bright white fur of his boots, the blue of his trousers, and the golden yellow of his cloak. Then she looked into his face.
She jolted. She would never forget that slender, smiling face, the trimmed blond beard, the bright green eyes. If she still had any doubts, she heard him whistling a merry tune as he walked, and quite skillfully at that. For he was one of Godric’s dearest friends, a minstrel from the south, and he was the very man who had discovered Elwyna’s affair with Dumbun.
Sigurd stopped and blinked back at her. His whistling ceased. And then Elwyna knew she had been caught.
She could have kicked her horse and run away from him. She might have escaped so quickly that he would doubt himself later for thinking he saw her and attribute it all to a daydream. But something froze her to the spot, and even her horse drew to a stop.
She did not reply for awhile. She listened to the wind howl around them and resisted the urge to explain herself. She regretted nothing—or at least she needed desperately to believe she didn’t, and therefore she refused to apologize. She would let him speak first, or never speak at all.
He cleared his throat. He glanced around the road to make sure no one else was around. When at last he broke the silence, even his sweet minstrel voice came out hoarse. “What brings you back to Shrewsbury?”
“I need to speak with Godric.”
She thought she would shock him into compliance with her courage and audacity. Instead he gawked and cried, “And why on earth would you do that?”
She bowed her head, defeated. Her voice came out so weak it was a wonder he understood her. “I need his help.”
“Elwyna … I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“And how would you know?” She glared at him maliciously. “Why are you in Shrewsbury, anyway? Do you live with Godric now? You two always seemed very close.”
She wasn’t even sure what she was implying, exactly. But Sigurd’s face turned as red as beets, and the laughter from his throat sounded nervous. “Oh, well, I just live nearby. You know Godric. Not really the type for ’close’ companionship. The only exception is Osgifu.”
By avoiding one topic, he had stumbled onto an even more awkward subject. But Elwyna knew he was wrong. She had glimpsed the way Godric opened up to Sigurd like no one else. She suspected that Godric was only closer to Osgifu than Sigurd in one particular way. But she took a deep breath and decided to let that go. “In any case, I need to see him. Good day, Sigurd.”
She nudged her horse, but Sigurd reached out and grabbed the reins. She couldn’t help but notice the panic glinting in his eyes, the genuine concern that drew his face into an uncharacteristic frown. Despite everything, he seemed to care about her situation—perhaps because he was partially to blame for it. “Elwyna, going to see Godric—and therefore your sister—would be like stirring up a hornet’s nest. Do you really want to do that?’
“I have no other choice.” She tried to pull the reins away from him, but the attempt was half-hearted.
“What would you have him do? Kill someone for you?”
Elwyna felt a strange calm settle over her. At first she didn’t know why. Then she realized that Sigurd had just confirmed what she had always suspected, but never really known. He had answered the question about Godric that always dug into her mind like a splinter she couldn’t remove. And now she understood. “I suppose so,” she said quietly. “After all, that’s what he does. Isn’t it.”
It wasn’t a question. Sigurd bowed his head, realizing the effect of his words too late. “Listen,” he rasped. “Godric’s done with all that, or at least he wants to be. And even if I’m wrong … I will not let you prove it.”
The last of Elwyna’s hope dissolved. The odds of getting Godric to help her were already against her. If Sigurd opposed her, too, then she stood no chance at all. Against her will, icy tears pricked her eyes. Her anger rose up, a vile taste in her mouth, and had nowhere to go but towards the man in front of her. “Then know that you are truly responsible for ruining my life.”
She wrenched the reins again, this time successfully turning her horse about. Only the pain in Sigurd’s voice stopped her.
She did not look at him, only waited.
“I live not far from here. At least let me give you something to eat.”
She wanted to refuse him, for the sake of her own pride, and due to the fact noon had passed and every remaining hour of the day was precious. But her stomach clenched, its emptiness stabbing her, and she nodded weakly in response.
As Sigurd led her to his home, she told him in full of her plight. The story shamed her, revealing the depths of her poverty and loneliness. But Sigurd listened raptly, and she found herself grateful for a sympathetic ear, despite her past with its owner. He made sounds of disgust as he listened to the way the Normans treated her. When she confessed her fears that Drogo would rape her, the blood drained from Sigurd’s face.
He had a small but cozy cabin on the edge of a pasture. He lit the fire and gave her warm stew. He even told her he would save her a trip to town and trade with her. He gave her wine and bread in exchange for some meat, then told her to keep the Normans’ coin for herself. Then he opened the floorboards and rummaged through his belongings without explaining why. She watched curiously while sipping her stew.
At last he emerged with a tiny pouch, and as he held it up to the firelight, his hands trembled.
“What’s that?” she asked at last.
“A possible solution.” He looked at her gravely. “Depending on how desperate you are.”
He nodded and set down the pouch on the floor beside her. “Pour this into the Norman’s wine. And he’ll never bother you again.”
Elwyna gulped. She had hoped Godric might kill for her. Why not gather her courage and do the deed herself? Nonetheless, the thought sent chills down her back. “One of them, Sir Fulbert … he’s not such a bad man.”
Sigurd waved his fingers frantically, as if to sever his ties to the issue. “Use it as you will. It’s my gift to you.” He already seemed eager to forget about it.
Elwyna did not have that luxury. “If I only kill one of them … how obvious will it be that he died of poison?”
“Obvious enough,” said Sigurd grimly. “If you use all of that, he will die quickly. Less, and he will be sick for a few hours—vomiting and such—before he succumbs. He may have trouble breathing or grow very confused before the end.” He wiped his brow, as if to push away a disturbing memory. “Either way, I imagine you will look very suspicious. I leave the choice to you.”
She nodded, then picked up the pouch. The steadiness of her fingers surprised her. “Thank you, Sigurd.”
She returned to the cabin just as the sun touched the horizon. Before she dismounted, her hand brushed the tiny pouch against her dress. Its presence lent her courage. She didn’t have a plan yet. But at least she had an option.
The men remained strangely quiet as she walked inside and handed out food. Dumbun looked at her with a mixture of relief and fear. She hoped he detected the faint reassurance in her eyes as she gave him a small piece of bread. Drogo and Sir Fulbert talked for a while in Norman and paid her little heed at first—or at least made it seem that way. But Elwyna caught Drogo’s gaze pinning her momentarily. Now, she not only saw lust in his eyes; she saw anger. She wondered which was worse.
“Pour me some wine, then,” said Sir Fulbert.
Elwyna’s heart raced as she opened the generous cask from Sigurd and poured the first cup.
“Moi aussi,” said Drogo, and held up a horn from his belt.
Her trembling hands gave Fulbert his cup and took Drogo’s horn. She didn’t want to kill both of them. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to kill anyone. Perhaps she should not use the poison at all. What if she made a mistake? Pouring all the powder into Drogo’s horn would be difficult to hide. Pouring it into the entire cask would be very risky, and she doubted it would successfully kill anyone. What if Dumbun tried to drink some? After all, he certainly deserved wine more than these Normans did.
She poured Drogo’s wine and handed it back to him. As she did, he closed his fingers around hers, smirking. She yanked her hand away.
Dumbun came over to pour his own cup. As he did, he reached up to grip her shoulder. Elwyna found herself leaning against him and clutching his clothes. She couldn’t help herself. Suddenly, she imagined running off with him again, leaving this cabin, starting all over like they had before. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe they stood a good chance.
Then Fulbert cleared his throat and said, “Dumbun. There’s something else I want you to show me. Let’s go outside.”
Elwyna’s fingers dug more deeply into Dumbun’s shirt, even as she turned to snap at Fulbert. “That’s ridiculous! It’s almost nightfall!”
The explosion of pain across her cheek seemed to come from nowhere at first. Her skull rattled and her teeth knocked together. Then she saw the blur of Fulbert’s hand coming to a stop, remembered the sound of flesh smacking against flesh, and realized he had struck her—hard.
For a moment, Dumbun’s grip on her was the only reason Elwyna remained standing. Then Dumbun lunged forward, releasing her to stagger in place. Her vision spun, but she glimpsed both of Dumbun’s hands reaching for Fulbert. She heard the sound of a sword scraping out of its scabbard. She saw the flash of Drogo’s blade against the firelight. Then Dumbun lurched to a halt.
Fulbert leaned down towards Elwyna, jamming his finger close to her face. “You don’t tell me what to do,” hissed the knight, “You don’t decide anything at all. The sooner you both realize that, the better we can all get along.”
He grabbed Dumbun fiercely, then shoved him towards the door. “Outside!” The Norman still had Dumbun’s axe against his belt. And even if they were equally equipped, Elwyna doubted Dumbun could do anything against the knight, who was clearly a seasoned warrior. She didn’t want him to try. So she caught her lover’s gaze one more time and said, desperately, “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Sir Fulbert grumbled to himself in Norman, then pushed Dumbun over the threshold. Together they went outside, and Fulbert shut the door behind them.
For a time Elwyna stood unmoving, cradling her throbbing cheek, and she nearly succumbed to her fate. She wondered if Fulbert even had a right to be angry. After all, he could have punished her for theft or something like it. These Normans could have killed her and Dumbun outright in order to take this little cabin and save themselves the trouble of dealing with two impoverished Saxons.
Ironically, it was one small mercy given to her by Drogo that rekindled her hopes of escape. The Norman poured her a cup of wine and handed it over.
As she took it, she dared meeting the man’s eyes. She detected a hint of loneliness beneath the cloud of greed.
“Thank you,” she said.
He replied in Norman, and though she couldn’t understand him, his tone suggested a half-hearted attempt to reassure her. The way his eyes crawled down her body, however, failed to comfort her.
Drogo finished his wine and set down his horn. He walked over to the fire, added a log, and stoked the embers. Flames flared over the wood and sent a surge of heat through the cabin. Drogo unfastened the heavy belt from his tunic and set it on the floor.
Elwyna acted quickly. She picked up his his horn and upturned the pouch of powder. Then she poured the wine on top of it. She watched the dust swirl into the burgundy liquid and vanish.
When he turned back around, Elwyna stood nearby, handing him his horn of wine while continuing to sip from her cup. He grinned and drank.
Elwyna turned away to hide the shock on her face. She had done it. She had poisoned him. Now she need only wait.
She walked slowly so as not to rouse his concern. She set down her cup of wine. Then, still turned away from him, she took off the belt from her dress. She reached up and untied her hair, letting the red waves fall down her neck.
She heard Drogo gulping his wine hastily. She thanked God for the fact this man drank from a horn, which needed to be emptied before he set it down. Indeed, she heard it give a hollow echo as it clunked onto the floor. Her heart leapt into her throat. Then Drogo approached her from behind and wrapped his arms around her.
She was too overwhelmed to move, much less put up a fight, as he kissed her neck and pulled at her dress. She seemed to watch herself from afar as she waited for it all to be over. She knew that he touched her; that if she thought about it too much, she would panic. So she pretended as if it happened to someone else, barely listening through the roar in her ears, until he gagged and fell backward.
Even then, she remained still for a time. She returned to her body slowly. She heard him wheezing and thrashing. Finally, she turned to look.
As Sigurd had promised, such a large dose of the poison killed Drogo quickly. He struggled to draw one more breath and failed. Her stomach curdled as she watched one last surge of life flare through his eyes—she saw rage, she saw longing, she saw regret—before the light faded out them.
And then he died.
After that, Elwyna felt inexplicably calm. The deed was done. The man was dead. Now she simply had to deal with it.
She wiped the spittle from his mouth. She readjusted his clothes. Then she sat down in a corner and considered what to do next. She could say she had no idea what happened to him. Perhaps he had a horrible illness; perhaps Fulbert should run away or he would get sick, too. She would think of something.
She had run away from the law once and she could do it again. She did not need society. She did not need the mercy of two Norman bullies. She did not even need a husband or children. She would live life freely and without consequences, for surely she and Dumbun deserved to, after all they had endured.
Satisfied with the possibilities, Elwyna stood up. She pulled up her dress enough to cover herself, but remained disheveled for the sake of appearances. Then she walked to the door.
Releasing NEXT (June 26, 2012)—
EDRIC THE WILD,
the novel concluding the Sons of Mercia series,
releases October 2, 2012
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
To view a full list of sources, or to tell me what you think of my work, visit my blog at https://talesofmercia.wordpress.com