Last Tales of Mercia 4: Ralph the Knight

When a fight between a Norman and a Saxon gets out of hand, Sir Ralph must employ the help of a knight named Geoffrey to cover up the unfortunate incident.

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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And [the king’s council] declared Archbishop Robert utterly an outlaw, and all the Frenchmen, because they had made most of the difference between Godwin, the earl, and the king.”

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1052

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SHROPSHIRE

1052 A.D.

“To Sir Ralph, the newest knight of Engla-lond!”

A few cheers resounded through the smoky Saxon tavern. Most of the occupants remained quiet, choosing to send sullen looks in Ralph’s direction rather than celebrate. Anglo-Saxons outnumbered Normans here, and Anglo-Saxons did not enjoy watching another Norman gain power. Ralph knew this and even tried to respect the fact. That did not stop him from feeling as if all the world should share in his glory.

He had always hoped to become a knight one day, but today’s promotion had caught him by surprise. Ralph had accompanied Lord Richard FitzScrob and a few other men to confront an Anglo-Saxon family for disobedience. Their son owed Richard labor on the castle, but he had repeatedly fled from his duties—presumably with his parents’ help. Richard FitzScrob and his men had been prepared to punish the family severely. But Ralph surprised everyone by talking with the young fellow, whom he knew from a previous occasion, and convincing him to submit peacefully to Richard’s will. After that, the family had also complied.

Truly enough, Ralph befriended Anglo-Saxons whenever he had the chance, because he saw no reason not to. He liked Engla-lond. He liked meeting men who had once been Vikings; after all, the Normans’ own ancestors were Vikings. He liked the air of independence and freedom that so many English inhabitants exuded, perhaps due to so many years of warfare. The men and women here seemed to serve their lords because they chose freely to do so—or at least they liked to pretend as much. And Ralph liked that about them. He was already starting to grow his hair out like most Saxons and was even considering a beard. He could speak fluid English and only spoke Norman if the occasion demanded.

Lord Richard had been so pleased by Ralph’s negotiations that on the way home, he announced his intention to knight Ralph the next time they visited King Edward—which would be in a fortnight.

“I am happy for you, Ralph.” This from Sir Fulbert, who sat across from Ralph and sipped slowly at some wine. The older man’s eyes wandered suspiciously to the nearby Saxons, as if expecting one of them to jump out and kill him at any moment. Ralph could not blame him. Barely a week ago, Sir Fulbert’s squire, Drogo, had died mysteriously on a scouting trip through the woods. Fulbert claimed that a wild red-headed wench had killed the squire, perhaps by some means of sorcery. The accused woman, Elwyna, had been shackled and put to work at Richard’s castle while awaiting trial. Ralph had caught glimpses of her a couple times and didn’t doubt her guilt. “But don’t grow too accustomed to leniency,” said Fulbert. “It can get you in trouble with these people.”

Ralph shrugged. “I don’t think I’m lenient,” he said. “I’ve just made a lot more friends than the rest of you bastards.”

Some of the men laughed; even Fulbert gave a little smile. The only one who made no response at all was Geoffrey, a knight who had said nothing all evening. Ralph wondered why the man had come out to celebrate in the first place. He rarely spoke, barely drank, and in most ways was Ralph’s opposite. If Lord Richard thought of Ralph as a friend to the Saxons, he probably saw Geoffrey as their most feared enemy. Geoffrey got nearly complete obedience from all of his tenants, purportedly because he terrified them.

Geoffrey’s silence tended to make Ralph uneasy. He wondered how often he would work with this man from now on. The land Ralph would acquire as part of his knighthood lay just next to Geoffrey’s. Ralph decided he should make some attempt to befriend Geoffrey, rather than risk becoming his enemy. “Maybe Geoffrey and I should team up,” he suggested jovially. “Between my charms and Geoffrey’s brutality, we’d be unstoppable.”

Geoffrey looked up from his ale—mostly untouched—and stared back at Ralph with flat golden eyes. Then he gave Ralph a very fake smile.

A few of the men laughed uncertainly.

“I think Richard picked you because you make him look compassionate.” A grumpy squire, no doubt jealous of Ralph’s promotion, managed to break the growing tension. “I hear King Edward will send some Normans home during the next council, never to return. Too many of the king’s Saxon subjects have complained about our presence here.”

“Surely they’re not complaining about Lord FitzScrob.” Ralph said this to assure himself as much as anyone. He also downed a few more gulps of ale to help wash away his fears. He wanted to stay here in Engla-lond, especially now that he would get his own horse and tenants.

“Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be too sure about your knighthood if I were you,” mumbled the jealous squire. “King Edward might not let us stay here, much less put another Norman in a position of power.”

Ralph stared into his horn of ale and tried to think of a new topic of discussion.

Sir Fulbert came to his rescue. “Have you looked for a wife yet? A proper Saxon woman might secure your place here.”

“That’s true.” This subject brought a smile back to Ralph’s face. He looked beyond the circle of Normans and surveyed his nearest options. “Might as well get started, eh?”

The men cheered him on appreciatively as he rose to leave the table.

He breathed a sigh of relief once away from his Norman companions. He liked them well enough, but more and more often he preferred English company to theirs. And he certainly didn’t mind the prospect of beginning the search for a woman—though he had no intention of choosing a wife yet.

A few seated women looked lonely enough for him to attempt entertaining, but a serving wench grabbed his attention, for she seemed in need of a hero. A large man had hold of the woman’s hand and did not appear willing to release it. The woman tugged a few times; she carried a pitcher of wine with her other hand and this limited her movement. But the large Saxon kept hold of her, leering and talking while she tried not to listen.

“Excuse me,” said Ralph. “I think the lady wants you to let go of her.”

Both the woman and the man blinked at him in surprise. Ralph hoped his Norman accent did not make him too difficult to understand. He gave his warmest smile to the woman, though she looked a little older and less attractive this close than she had from afar. A quick study of her curvy body assured him that she would still be worth the effort.

“And who are you to say?” The Saxon man’s sneer appeared as a streak of brown teeth amidst his thick beard.

“Merely a concerned citizen.”

“No you’re not. You’re a fucking Norman.” The Saxon worked up a mouthful of spit, then flung it upon the floor.

Ralph stared in disgust at the blob for a moment, struggling to contain his temper. Then he altered his stance slightly so that his hand draped almost casually over the pommel of his sword, making the weapon the most prominent trait of his figure. “I am a knight in the service of Lord Richard FitzScrob.”

“Well then, knight.” The Saxon’s grip on the woman tightened. “Maida and I know each other.”

Ralph looked to the woman, Maida, for confirmation. Her big brown eyes sparked with anger as she scowled at the Saxon. “I may know Seaver,” she hissed, “but that doesn’t mean I like him.”

Maida looked even prettier when she was angry. Ralph grinned and turned back to Seaver. “Looks like you should let go of her now.”

“You can’t tell me what to do!” Then Seaver twisted in his chair and kicked Ralph in the shin.

The strike caught Ralph by such surprise that for a moment he did nothing but hiss and absorb the pain. When he realized what the Saxon scoundrel had done, he reacted without thinking. He reached out, grabbed Seaver’s hair, and slammed his face into the table. A ripple shot through the tavern as everyone turned to see what had happened. Ralph realized how awful he must appear: a Norman pulling his hand away from a seated Saxon whose nose poured blood onto the table. Ralph looked around in a panic. He wanted to say something in his defense, but that might only make him seem more guilty. Everyone stared back at him expectantly.

Then Seaver recovered, cried out with rage, and punched Ralph deep in the stomach.

Ralph struggled to stay standing as his insides turned to mush. To aid his efforts, he reached out and grabbed Seaver by the tunic. He noticed belatedly that Seaver had finally let go of Maida, but that hardly seemed to matter anymore. This conflict was no longer about a woman.

“Let’s take this outside,” growled Ralph, and flung Seaver towards the door.

Seaver’s chair fell out from under him as he stumbled to the exit. Ralph helped him on his way with a solid kick to his side. One after the next, they both staggered outside.

The sun hung low in the sky, scattering reds and yellows into a few wisps of clouds. On any other evening Ralph might have taken a moment to appreciate the beauties of the English landscape during such a gorgeous sunset. Tonight, he had to focus instead on dodging a swing of Seaver’s fist. Then he retaliated with a punch of his own. Seaver managed to grab his arm before the blow connected, at which point he lunged at Ralph with all the bulk of his body, locking the two of them in a chest-to-chest struggle.

For a little while Ralph was aware of nothing beyond Seaver’s weight against his hands, the constant struggle to stay standing while Seaver kicked and jabbed him, the roaring in his ears that combined the heaving of Seaver’s breath with the pounding of Ralph’s own blood, and the images of hair and snarling teeth flashing in his vision. His body felt heavy with drink, but a restlessness also stirred through his muscles, left over from the potential of violence he had faced earlier today followed by a peaceful resolution. Just because he was good at negotiating didn’t mean he disliked fighting, and somewhere beneath his whirlwind of thoughts, he reveled in this opportunity to bash someone’s head in.

He became vaguely aware of the fact that his struggle with Seaver had led them away from the tavern, which meant that he had successfully pushed Seaver a far distance. As their feet continued to churn through the dirt, they approached a thin line of trees and bushes, where the shadows might swallow them into darkness. This would probably be for the best, he suspected. He could hear people yelling behind him, including some of his own Norman companions, commanding the Saxons to go back inside.

He wondered how large of a crowd had gathered to watch the scuffle, but before he could look, Seaver’s elbow struck him soundly in the jaw. The blow made his teeth nick the side of his own tongue, filling his mouth with warm metallic blood. He spat some of it into Seaver’s face, then finally managed to pull the chubby Saxon onto the ground.

Unfortunately, Seaver maneuvered himself to fall on top of Ralph as he descended. Ralph lost his breath as Seaver’s weight slammed his back against the earth. And just when he had recovered enough to inhale, Seaver’s ropy fingers closed around his neck.

“Fucking Norman,” hissed Seaver, his hot breath lashing Richard’s face. “Think you can tell me what to do?

Ralph tried to take another breath and failed. Then the panic began to set in. He felt the crushing pinch of Seaver’s hands against the tender muscles of his neck at the same time he recognized the murderous intent gleaming in the Saxon’s eyes. Ralph stopped thinking and responded in the only way possible.

His arm struggled to get out from under Seaver’s weight, then grabbed the dirk from his belt. He turned the blade and stuck it deep into Seaver’s side.

Seaver’s body jolted. First he tensed up, gripping Ralph’s neck almost to the breaking point. Then he gasped and went limp, rolling sideways as his hand went to the wound. Ralph’s blade sliced even further as it slid out. And once the knife was free, Ralph wasted no time; he slashed the Saxon’s throat.

Seaver gave a wet sigh, then stopped breathing completely.

Ralph nearly whooped aloud with joy. Just in time he stopped himself. He saw the small crowd of Saxons standing nearby. He realized the sun remained high enough to illuminate everything with a cruel shade of red. He felt the sticky blood on his hands and wiped it belatedly on Seaver’s tunic. Finally, it occurred to him that if Lord Richard found out about this, Ralph’s dreams of knighthood would vanish in smoke.

“No …” He scrambled to his feet and scrubbed his hands against his tunic, over and over, as if he could cleanse the very act of murder away. “No! I didn’t mean for this … !”

Dizzily, he watched his Norman companions try to contain the anger simmering amongst the Anglo-Saxons. He counted about six Saxons altogether. Some of the Normans drew their swords. The Anglo-Saxons backed away.

Then he recognized Geoffrey. The short yellow mop of hair on Geoffrey’s head rippled in the breeze as he straightened his lean form and grabbed everyone’s attention. The knight did not speak loudly—Ralph heard no more than the low tone of his voice—but whatever he said caused everyone to turn and walk away.

Next, Geoffrey twisted to face Ralph, his golden eyes reflecting the last rays of sunlight. Fear curdled in Ralph’s belly as the knight moved towards him. Had Geoffrey promised to punish Ralph somehow? After all, that was the skill the knight excelled at. Ralph saw a strange emotion in Geoffrey’s gaze; where the knight usually looked numb and bored, he suddenly seemed brought to life.

Geoffrey stopped just a few feet away from Ralph. He looked from Ralph, to the Saxon’s corpse, and back again. “We have to get rid of the body,” said Geoffrey at last.

Ralph swallowed, feeling as if a rock lodged in his throat. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. His family will want to bury him …”

“No.” Geoffrey crouched down, studying Seaver’s wounds up close. His eyes gleamed as they traversed the thick pools of blood. “They must not be able to find him.”

“I don’t understand.” A cold wind pushed clouds over the sun, choking the remaining light. Ralph shivered. “Why shouldn’t they find him?”

Even in the darkness, Ralph sensed Geoffrey’s pale gaze peering up at him. “Do you still wish to become a knight? Do you want Lord Richard to remain here in Engla-lond?”

“Of course!”

“Then no one must know what happened here.”

“But I can probably just pay the price of Seaver’s life. What do they call it? A werigald.”

“Can you spare two hundred shillings?”

“Well, not right now …” He cursed inwardly, knowing that if he became a knight and had his own tenants, he would acquire such a sum easily. “But perhaps Lord Richard will pay it.”

“And in return, your knighthood would be forfeit.”

Ralph’s heart sank. He feared that Geoffrey was right.

“I will help you make this night as if it never happened,” Geoffrey assured him.

“But plenty of people saw me kill him!”

“Six Saxons.” The coldness of Geoffrey’s voice seemed to make the night air more frigid. “We will deal with them later.”

“Deal with them? How?”

Geoffrey pulled a long dagger from his belt, almost a seax. The dark blade glinted against the moon. “First, the body. We’ll have to take it to Eadgard’s farm.”

Ralph’s head spun. This was all happening too fast. “Who’s Eadgard? And why would we take the body to him?”

“Eadgard is one of my tenants who’s good at keeping his mouth shut. We will take it to him because he owns lots of hungry pigs.”

Geoffrey made it sound like he had done this all before. “Pigs … ?” Ralph’s stomach lurched inside him. He felt his last meal rising upwards. As Ralph gagged, Geoffrey put a hand on his chest and pushed him up against a tree. Ralph forgot about his disgust when he saw the dagger gleaming in Geoffrey’s other hand. The knight leaned close to him, whispering in Norman. “Or we could solve this another way, and make it look as if the two of you killed one another. I think this would save me a great deal of time.”

Ralph hoped Geoffrey could not feel the way his heart tried to hammer out of his chest. “No, no … that’s not necessary. We’ll take the body to … to Eadgard’s pigs.”

“Very well.” Geoffrey released him, then turned to collect the body.

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Ralph did not sleep that night, even though the Saxon farmer, Eadgard, gave him a warm bed next to the hearth fire. Ralph thought he could hear the snorting of the pigs outside even though they were far away. He also remained far too aware of Geoffrey, who didn’t seem to sleep, either. The knight sat staring into the low embers of the fire while sharpening his knife.

Ralph thought of the six faces he had seen from afar after killing Seaver. Geoffrey probably meant to kill them. But none of them deserved to die. He suspected the woman, Maida, had been among them. How awful that such a lovely woman might die just because Ralph had wanted to flirt. His intention had been to help her!

He tossed and turned until the sun rose, speculating on every conceivable way to get himself out of this mess. If not for Geoffrey, he might have gone straight to Lord Richard and confessed. At the very least he would have left the body for Seaver’s family to bury. Now there would be no end to the lies and deceptions.

Geoffrey seemed in a particularly good mood that morning, for Geoffrey. He walked around outside, whistling a little tune, then returned with some pottage for Ralph.

As Ralph consumed the gooey mixture, he could not stop thinking about Eadgard’s pigs.

Once Eadgard left to do his chores, Geoffrey fixed Ralph with his unrelenting stare. “So tell me,” he said. “Did you recognize any of the witness’s faces?”

Ralph closed his eyes and pretended to think about it. In truth, he tried desperately to forget. “Um … no, I’m afraid not. I mean, a face or two looked vaguely familiar, but I can’t say where I had seen them before. Probably just in that tavern.”

Geoffrey said nothing for a while; he just kept staring at Ralph, as if waiting for something. Ralph looked away and pretended like he didn’t notice. He fidgeted with his fingers and took another gulp of the bitter pottage. Meanwhile his stomach kept churning, and churning, the longer Geoffrey stared at him.

“I said I don’t know!” cried Ralph at last.

“That’s unfortunate.” Geoffrey took out his knife and began picking his nails with it. “You are lucky, then, that I recognized two of them. One of them lives not far from here. His name is Cerdic. He is a handsome boy—very friendly. I suspect he will know the name of the other bystanders.”

“Right. Good,” lied Ralph. He didn’t know why on earth Cerdic would want to tell them anything. But he also didn’t care to hear Geoffrey’s solution.

“We should go,” said Geoffrey, standing.

“In a moment. I’m not fin—”

Geoffrey grabbed Ralph’s bowl and flung it into the fire. “We have no time to waste, you connard.”

Ralph’s cheeks burned with fury, but he stood and followed Geoffrey outside.

They lashed their horses in the direction of Cerdic’s home, wasting no time, indeed. When Ralph glimpsed Geoffrey’s face and realized that the knight was not only impatient, but excited, anger flared through his veins. It occurred to him that Geoffrey actually enjoyed the prospect of killing innocent people. He trembled with rage even as his lingering fear urged him to show caution.

All too quickly, they arrived at Cerdic’s home. He had no house of his own, but lived on the small estate of a Saxon thegn comprised of several thatched huts. Ralph wondered which of Richard’s knights lorded over it. Then he took a second look at his surroundings and nearly cried out with despair. This would be one of his own hides of lands, he realized, once his knighthood was official.

The Saxons watched fearfully as Ralph and Geoffrey approached. When the peasants got a closer look at the riders’ hair, tunics, and swords, most retreated indoors.

“Hello!” yelled Ralph, trying to sound friendly. “We are just here to talk!”

Geoffrey dismounted, even as his horse kept trotting, and stormed onwards.

“Wait!” Ralph scrambled after him, struggling to free his boot from the horse’s stirrup. Once on the ground he hurried to Geoffrey’s side, who stood in the middle of the estate, turning his head slowly from one hut to the next like a dog sniffing the wind. The last remaining people looked at Ralph and fled.

A deep frown had fallen over Geoffrey’s face. “Which one of us are they running from?”

“You, I suspect, considering your reputation!”

Geoffrey scowled, his hand brushing the pommel of his sword. Ralph thought the knight might take his statement as a compliment. In any case, Geoffrey had other matters on his mind. “I think I saw another man who was there last night—Osgar. This way.”

Ralph reluctantly followed Geoffrey into one of the huts. His eyes needed a moment to adjust to the darkness and make out the group of huddling figures inside. He didn’t need to wait, however, because the young man in question stood and tried to run outside as soon as Ralph entered.

“That’s Osgar,” said Geoffrey.

Ralph tried to catch the young man at the threshold. But when Ralph took hold of him, the man’s panic increased. He flailed and cried out and tried even harder to escape. Ralph struggled to pull him to a clear area outside, and finally kicked the fellow’s legs in order to slow his struggling. Osgar fell to the earth with a cry of agony.

“Calm down!” cried Ralph, realizing that own leg still ached from the night before.

“Please don’t kill me!”

“We’re not going to …”

Ralph reconsidered this when he saw Geoffrey stride towards Osgar, hands flexing restlessly before him. The knight walked slowly, seeming to relish the Saxon’s fear. But when the young man got to his feet, he surprised them both by running towards Geoffrey rather than away. He grabbed Geoffrey’s tunic and clung to it.

“That one killed Seaver!” he shrieked. “Don’t let him near me!”

Geoffrey blinked at Ralph with surprise.

“I, uh …” Ralph cleared his throat. Osgar must not know who Geoffrey was, if he considered him the lesser of two evils. “I had a little misunderstanding with Seaver last night. It’s all very unfortunate. And we just came so we could …”  He knew that Geoffrey wanted to kill the witnesses. But he had tried all night to think of an alternative. At the last minute, a possible solution came to him. Thanks to Geoffrey’s disposal of the body, perhaps they could pretend as if no murder ever took place. “We came so we could ask if you’d seen Seaver. The truth is, he escaped. And I want to make sure he and I understand each other.”

“But … but …” Osgar’s grip on Geoffrey wavered. “I thought I saw you kill him.”

Ralph scoffed. “I sure would have liked to, at the time! But no, I didn’t. It was dark. I can see why it must have looked that way.”

He felt very proud of himself. Once again, he had proven to be a good friend to the Saxons. He would save several people’s lives from Geoffrey’s blade and meanwhile, no one would ever discover what truly became of Seaver. His scuffle with Seaver would remain a hidden mistake. Lord Richard may never hear of this, but all the better. Ralph would know that he had proved himself worthy of his new title, and he would continue to serve Engla-lond in the manner Lord Richard intended.

Then a scream split the air, and belatedly Ralph realized that Geoffrey had stuck his knife through Osgar’s forearm.

For a moment, Ralph could not help but marvel at the fact Geoffrey had moved so quickly and cleanly. Geoffrey gripped the breast of Osgar’s tunic with one hand while he held the knife in place with the other. Geoffrey leaned close to Osgar and spoke in a low voice, so that he had to stop screaming in order to listen. “I didn’t cut a vein or tear deeply into muscle,” hissed Geoffrey. “But if you struggle, I will.”

“For God’s sake,” said Ralph once he recovered from shock. A few people looked out of their cabins to see what was happening. Ralph tried to stand in such a way that he blocked the sight of metal splitting Osgar’s flesh. But he could not hide the flow of blood dripping onto the ground below, nor the whimpers of pain from Osgar’s throat.

“Now answer quickly,” bade Geoffrey. “Where is your friend Cerdic?”

“Cerdic? But—?” A slight twitch of Geoffrey’s hand convinced Osgar not to tarry. Tears sprang from the captive’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks. “On his way to Lord Richard FitzScrob! He left at dawn!”

“For what purpose?”

“To tell him what happened last night. We thought that man killed Seaver!” Osgar looked pointedly at Ralph. “But I guess we were wrong. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”

Geoffrey gritted his teeth. He looked angry for a reason Ralph could not explain. Did he actually wish the Saxon had not surrendered so quickly?

“Let him go, Geoffrey.” The conviction had drained from Ralph’s voice. He just wanted this to be over. If Cerdic had left at dawn to go to Lord Richard’s castle, then they were already too late. Even on foot, Cerdic would beat them there.

Geoffrey’s amber eyes flashed with anger. But he must have recognized the wisdom of Ralph’s advice, for with a quick jerk of his wrist, he freed the knife from Osgar’s arm.

The Saxon fell to the ground, cradling his wrist and moaning. Geoffrey stared down at him.

“We should go.” Ralph nearly nudged Geoffrey onward, then thought better of it and waited.

Geoffrey crouched down and lifted his knife to Osgar’s face. Ralph flinched, fearing some further injury, but Geoffrey just wiped the wet blade across Osgar’s cheek, leaving a trail of blood. “You’ll see me again, mon juet,” he said. Then he stood.

Once they were on their horses and on their way to Richard’s castle, Ralph could not help himself. He had to say something. “Why did you stab him? My way was working. And it could work with everyone else, if you don’t just stab them!”

Geoffrey’s eyes stared flatly ahead. “He grabbed my tunic,” said the knight.

“He actually thought you might protect him!” Ralph still marveled at the memory.

“Exactly,” said Geoffrey. Then he lashed his horse harder.

*

Returning to Richard’s estate in the light of noon, Ralph could hardly believe how much it had begun to resemble a true Norman castle. The gradual hill on which it was built offered a wide view of the pastures of Shropshire and Herefordshire. Even the grounds of the castle continued up a slight incline, emphasizing the supremacy of the tower that would eventually loom from the top western corner.

Most impressive from the outside were the deep ditches around the palisade walls. Right now the deepest sections already lay as low as ten feet, and eventually the slaves might dig even deeper. Sharp, rocky earth banked steeply up to the palisades, quite difficult for any intruder to climb. The ditch could only be crossed by a swing-bridge, which in times of war could be turned sideways to prevent passage. And even if one crossed the swing-bridge, he next must pass through the large rectangular gatehouse. Lord Richard had already instructed for this gatehouse to be made of stone, for it provided crucial protection to the overall castle. At this very moment, slaves were mixing hard white mortar to set the stones of its walls.

Meanwhile, the shoveled earth had been moved within the walls to form the heart and spine of the whole castle structure: the motte. The large pile of dirt and shale would soon form a hill of its own, and on top of that Richard would build a keep and tower in which he would live.

On the inner side of the ditches, slaves had already erected spiked wooden palisades, and in some areas they had begun to stack stones. Right now, Richard still searched for a quarry from which to obtain additional rocks. The wall would be difficult enough to scale given the ditch and palisades alone, but once Richard replaced it all with stone, it would be nearly impenetrable. Normans barely knew how to attack each other’s castles after years and years of warfare. The Anglo-Saxons would be entirely clueless.

Crossing through the gate and past the walls, the sight of sturdy cabins around the looming dirt and construction came as a sight to sore eyes. Ralph saw the slaves hard at work chopping wood or carrying stones. A few Normans took advantage of the open bailey to practice swords or train horses. Ralph hoped some of the Anglo-Saxons would have the same luxury soon enough. He thought they would willingly bend their backs for this project if they understood how grand it would be to see a castle on the English landscape. But understanding and appreciation would have to come with time.

Ralph and Geoffrey gave their horses to the stable-hand, then made their way deeper into the bailey. Eventually, Richard would reside in the stone keep on top of the motte. For now, he lived in the largest cabin on the bailey. Ralph’s heart sank as he neared the entrance. He wondered if his little brawl with Seaver had the potential to blow this all away. Of Richard’s followers, Ralph had the most sympathy for the Anglo-Saxons. But now he had murdered one and his knighting would be canceled. Men like Geoffrey or the murdered Drogo would rise to King Edward’s attention. And then he would send them all back to Normandy.

His legs like felt blocks of wood as he entered Richard’s hall.

They were too late. Cerdic was already there, kneeling on the floor before Richard, speaking in woeful tones of the injustice a Norman had wrought upon Seaver. Cerdic didn’t seem to know Ralph’s name. But when Ralph and Geoffrey entered, Cerdic readily lifted a finger and shouted, “There he is!”

Richard looked up from the table and blinked at the two newcomers. To Ralph’s surprise, the lord actually looked relieved. “Oh! Geoffrey.”

Geoffrey frowned. He looked from Cerdic, to Ralph, then back to Lord Richard. Cerdic’s finger pointed at Ralph, but that was less obvious to Richard, who sat on the other side of Cerdic. “Suzerain,” the knight replied uncertainly.

Now Cerdic grew confused. “No, not you. The other one.”

“Ralph?” Lord Richard blinked with puzzlement.

Ralph shifted on his feet. “Well, actually …” He bowed his head, reluctant to speak the words he knew he must. As his gaze dropped, he saw Osgar’s blood on Geoffrey’s tunic. He wondered if anyone else noticed.

“There must be some mistake,” said Lord Richard at last. “Geoffrey? Were you there last night?”

“Yes, Suzerain.”

“Then you must have the two of them mixed up,” said Lord Richard to the Saxon. “Ralph would never do something like that.”

“I know what I saw!” cried Cerdic. “That one—Ralph—fought with Seaver over a woman! They went outside, and then—”

“I finished Seaver off.” Geoffrey’s voice sliced through all the noise in the room and left a temporary silence. The knight stepped forward and glowered at Cerdic as if at a bug he wished to squash. “I killed Seaver.” Next his dull gaze fixed on Richard. “Je suis désolé, Suzerain. I couldn’t let the Saxon defeat Ralph.”

Ralph’s cheeks burned, recognizing the insult even as he thanked the heavens for Geoffrey’s help. Placing the blame on Geoffrey made complete sense; no one would think twice about the fact Geoffrey had killed someone. But why would Geoffrey do this for Ralph?

Lord Richard sighed and nodded wearily. “There we have it. Geoffrey, are you willing to pay Seaver’s life price? It will be two hundred shillings.”

Geoffrey’s fists clenched. Then he glared at Ralph.

Ralph gulped. “I will pay half,” said Ralph hoarsely. “After all, I started the fight.” He pretended not to notice that Geoffrey continued to glare at him, the strength of his gaze like a fire blazing against Ralph’s side.

“That settles it, Cerdic,” said Lord Richard. “I will ensure the king’s peace from here. You’re dismissed.”

Reluctantly, Cerdic stood and made to go. But his eyes lingered on Ralph all the while, fear swimming in his irises.

Imbécile,” hissed Geoffrey as the Saxon departed.

Once the three Normans were alone, Lord Richard scowled and pushed himself to his feet. Ralph winced on his lord’s behalf, knowing that Richard’s crooked feet must be causing him pain, and yet the lord chose to stand nonetheless. The gesture had its proper effect, for Richard’s large-boned frame cut an imposing figure as he loomed over the room. “Ralph,” said Lord Richard. “I’m disappointed in you.”

Ralph’s legs nearly buckled underneath him. He had hardly slept, barely ate, and been in a constant state of stress since last night. For the wonderful moment when Richard said “That settles it,” Ralph had felt as if all of his problems must be solved. Relief had poured over him, only to be snatched away once more by a few simple words. I’m disappointed in you.

“Please, my lord, forgive me,” rasped Ralph. “The man did kick me in front of an entire tavern. But perhaps I overreacted.”

“I can’t say I blame you,” sighed Richard, “but right now we must be very careful. When I present you to King Edward, I want you to be a shining example of the peace-abiding knights Engla-lond desires right now.”

“I know. I know. I am sorry.”

“Thank God Geoffrey took care of this for you,” Lord Richard continued. “But we need to make it very clear to everyone who saw you that night that Seaver’s blood is on his hands and not yours. We will present this at the next hundred-court and set the story straight. Understood?”

“Yes. Of course.” Ralph glimpsed Geoffrey’s smirk in the corner of his vision and his heart sank further. If Ralph had his way from the beginning, he might have convinced everyone that no murder had happened at all. It would have been difficult, surely, to explain Seaver’s disappearance, but the attempt might have saved them two hundred shillings. Instead, Geoffrey chose to make Ralph look like a fool who had started a fight and not been able to finish it. And he seemed far too pleased with his decision to do so.

“And you, Geoffrey.” Lord Richard’s reprimanding tone wiped the smirk from Geoffrey’s face. Richard leaned further over the table and lowered his voice. “I usually don’t bother to ask about your activities. But usually, you are much more careful.”

Geoffrey just stared blankly back at him.

“Any more blunders like this, and I suspect you’d soon be out of money. If that happens, you’re on your own. Understand?”

“Certainly, Suzerain. That will not happen.”

“Good. Have the money ready by the next hundred-court. Dismissed.”

Ralph heard Lord Richard cursing under his breath as the two knights left the hall.

Back on the bailey, Ralph took a deep breath of exhaustion and wondered how severely he would feel the loss of one hundred shillings. Most certainly, it would delay the repairs of his new manor and acquiring a wife. But then he watched the construction happening all around him and his heart felt at ease.

He glimpsed a skinny woman with red hair lugging a large stone through the mud. He wondered if it was the wild Saxon, Elwyna, who had been accused of Drogo’s murder. For her crime, she would undoubtedly hang. Perhaps Richard only delayed her trial so that it would not be widespread knowledge when he next visited King Edward. Ralph’s own losses could have been much worse, he realized. And it was all thanks to Geoffrey that they weren’t.

“I expect you to pay all of it.” Geoffrey’s calm voice cut him once more to the quick. “I will provide a hundred shillings for the next hundred-court. But when you are able, you will pay back my half of the werigald.”

Ralph gulped. “Very well.” He wanted to rant at the knight for putting him in this awkward position, but he resisted the urge. “I suppose I should … thank you.”

Geoffrey chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” snapped Ralph.

“I did not do it for your sake,” leered the knight. “Nonetheless, I do believe you owe me a favor.”

Then Sir Geoffrey went on his way, and Ralph wondered if this was the worst possible punishment.

**

 Releasing NEXT (July 10, 2012)—

Osgifu finds out that her sister, Elwyna, may soon be hanged for murder. She faces a hard decision of whether to leave matters to fate or oppose the Normans.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

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.

Special thanks to these additional 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.

A full list of sources is included on the bottom right column of this blog.

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