Last Tales of Mercia 5: Osgifu the Sister

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.

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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SHREWSBURY, SHROPSHIRE

1053 A.D.

Two warm, sturdy arms seemed to reach from Osgifu’s dreams before closing gently around her. A smile lit her face as her body stirred to wakefulness. She felt the warm rays of sunshine beaming through the window shutters. The musky aroma of her husband, Godric, washed over her as he pulled her close and kissed her neck. The coarse stubble around his lips brushed her tender skin. She laughed and squirmed in his grip. “That tickles!”

In response, he kissed her again and tightened his hold on her. She struggled playfully, lashing him with her long red hair, then using her predicament as an excuse to turn around and face him.

At first glance, Godric looked almost boyish in the gentle light of the sun rise. His blue eye glittered mischievously. Short golden hairs shone upon his chin, a pleasant contrast to the dark roots of hair from his forehead. His long brown hair paled easily in the sunlight, which explained why it had almost been blond when she first saw him return from the land of Jomsvikings. The memory made her heart pound and her blood warm; she remembered how handsome he had been that day when she saw him in a Lundenburg church, still in his teen years but already a man in every conceivable way. She had been taken with him ever since, despite the fact he had cursed and grumbled in the house of God, and even voiced his intention to murder someone.

Now forty-five, Godric was still as handsome as ever, though many years of war and hardship had certainly taken their toll. Osgifu reached up and ran her hands through his hair, which had always been a blend of browns and yellows; now it also carried streaks of gray. Next her fingers brushed over his shoulder and torso, jagged with scars. Then her touch trailed back up his chest, over the jut of his throat, towards the knot of scars on one side of his face that had once been his right eye.

He reached up and grabbed her hand, stopping its ascent. “Osgifu,” he said simply. Then he pushed her down and rolled on top of her.

He smothered her laughter with a kiss, quickly transforming her mirth into a new sensation entirely. The weight of his body enveloped her, pinning her, so that her every attempt to escape only increased her contact with him and made her a more willing captive. She sighed with release as he pushed his hips against hers, making his urgency evident, and trailed kisses down her neck. He propped himself with one arm, his muscles rippling down its girth, as he reached to free himself with the other.

“Mother … ?”

Godric froze, making them all too aware of the sound of the door as it swung open, then the pitter-patter of a boy’s little feet.

“EDRIC!” Godric’s cry of rage seemed to shatter the rest of the world into silence. Osgifu caught only a glimpse of Edric’s red curls trailing behind him as he turned and ran. Then Godric jumped up, pulling on a pair of trousers with incredible speed. “So much for building our own room!” he snarled, and lunged after his fleeing son.

Osgifu sighed, trying to replace her own disappointment with sympathy for nine-year-old Edric. She listened to the echoes of Godric’s yelling through the door as she hastened to pull on her own dress. “Best go easy on him, Godric!” she called. “I’m getting too old to conceive another child!”

Any further jests died on her tongue as soon as she stepped into the main hall and saw why Edric had interrupted them in the first place.

A strange man cowered near the door of the hall. He had scraggly hair and raggedy clothes, and Osgifu doubted he had bathed or eaten a good meal in months. The stranger stared at Godric with terrified eyes, yet refused to budge from his spot.

The expression on Godric’s face was far more terrifying. Shirtless and bristling with muscle, Godric looked prepared to murder the man with his bare hands. Without a doubt, the two men knew one another.

“Edric.” Osgifu crouched and reached for her son, whom Godric had forgotten in the presence of the intruder. Edric gladly ran to his mother’s arms. His face was red from the effort of not crying and he trembled in her grasp.

“I’m sorry!” he wailed. “But that man came in and I didn’t know what to do!”

“You did the right thing, Edric.” Osgifu held him close, shielding him as she walked towards her husband.

“Go back to our room, Osgifu.” Godric spoke without looking at her, his voice a low growl.

“I will not,” she said, even as her legs quaked beneath her. Then she fixed her gaze on the stranger. “Please, tell us who you are and what you want.”

Godric snorted. “You won’t get a response from him. He doesn’t talk.”

Only Edric’s weight against Osgifu’s arms gave her the strength to stay standing. Her head spun dizzily. Years ago, when Osgifu left a nunnery and agreed to marry Godric, she did so with the understanding that he would be honest and true to her in all things. For that reason he had told her everything about his first marriage with Osgifu’s sister, Elwyna. He had described a slave that didn’t speak yet somehow managed to start an affair with Elwyna while Godric was away from home. “So this is Dumbun,” she gasped.

Godric finally turned and looked at her. His one eye gleamed dangerously even as his face pleaded with her. “Please, Osgifu. Leave us alone.”

“I can’t do that.”

Godric had tried to adopt a peaceful way of life once he married her, but Osgifu knew certain urges would never go away. It was a miracle Dumbun had survived Godric’s original discovery of the affair in the first place. Her instincts assured her that if she left the room now, she would return to find a dead body.

She turned her attention back to Dumbun. “Is this about my sister?” she asked. “Is Elwyna all right?”

Dumbun bowed his head and shook it slowly.

“Oh God.” Overwhelmed, Osgifu released Edric. “Go outside now,” she bade him. “Do your chores.”

Edric seemed all too happy to obey, for by doing so he could flee his father’s wrath as well as the strange man standing near the doorway. He scurried outside and vanished.

“You look nearly starved,” said Osgifu to Dumbun. “Why don’t you take a seat and I’ll get you some bread.”

Dumbun made a slight movement toward the table, his desperation apparent. Then Godric pounced. He grabbed Dumbun’s shoulders while jabbing upwards with his knee. He struck Dumbun deep in the belly, then shoved him to the floor. A little groan escaped the slave’s throat as he dropped, his body as limp as a puppet with its strings cut.

“This man does not get to eat at my table,” snarled Godric. Then his hand curled into a fist. He crouched to land another blow.

“Godric, no! This is about my sister!” Osgifu’s hands on Godric’s back were the only successful deterrent from further violence. He stopped and turned to look at her, eyes blazing with rage he could not restrain. But the longer he stared at Osgifu, the more his anger faded. “If he can’t eat at the table,” she said, “then he will eat outside.”

Godric’s tension unwound beneath her touch. His hand uncurled and fell to his side. He closed his eyes, as if to stop himself from looking at Dumbun, while he stood and turned away.

“I want him gone before noon.” Godric’s voice was weak with defeat. “Or I’ll get rid of him myself.”

*

After several attempts to communicate with Dumbun, Osgifu sympathized with Godric’s urge to bludgeon the man to death. She knew that Dumbun could make sounds with his throat, so why didn’t he speak? She prayed that God would give her patience as she fed Dumbun bread, gave him a warm seat near the outdoor kitchens, and tried to pull information from him.

Osgifu regretted agreeing to take Dumbun outside. The winter chill hung heavily in the air, and to make matters worse, a fog had rolled in to choke the sunshine. Frost remained glittering on the grass well into mid-morning. Even when Osgifu lit a fire, Dumbun kept trembling as if the cold had settled deep in his bones. She gave him a blanket and tried to think of some new way to learn his message.

Finally, she worked up the courage to ask him the most pertinent question. “Is Elwyna alive?”

Dumbun nodded.

A small surge of relief rewarded Osgifu, though her stomach remained knotted with fear. “Is she ill?”

He shook his head.

“So … she is in some sort of trouble?”

Nod.

“Do the two of you need money?”

He hesitated. Without affirming or denying this, he looked pointedly to the heavens, then clasped his hands together as if praying. Then he brushed his forehead, rippling his fingers like water.

“She needs the mercy of God.”

Dumbun nodded fervently.

Elwyna felt ridiculous, but at least this method of questioning had begun to yield results. “Has she done something? Has she committed a crime?”

He lowered his head sorrowfully, then nodded.

“How bad is this crime? Theft? Cheating?” No response. “Murder?

Another nod.

“Dear God.” Osgifu made the sign of the cross. “Whom did she kill?”

Dumbun considered how to respond. Then he grabbed his scraggly locks of hair and pulled them upward. He scraped his other hand up the back of his skull, as if shaving the hair from it.

“A Norman!” It seemed too horrible to be true. But why else would Dumbun come all this way and dare showing his face to Godric? “Do they have her? Will they kill her?”

Nod.

Her mind raced and she paced across the frosty grass as she considered what to do. She certainly did not have the money to pay the werigald of a Norman. Nor would she risk her own neck in some desperate attempt to save her wayward sister. The two of them had not spoken in years. Usually, Osgifu tried her best not to think about Elwyna. But now, knowing that her blood-kin faced death, Osgifu knew that at the very least, she must face her sister once more.

The distant thunder of horse-hooves forced her to make a decision. She looked through the fog and discerned the the shape of two riders approaching; that would be Godric returning with his Danish housecarl, Faran. Faran liked to act and dress like a Viking, even though he had never been one. The two men had gone on an errand while waiting for Osgifu and Dumbun to conclude business.

“You must go.” Osgifu stood and nudged Dumbun frantically. “Meet me at Ethelbert’s church. It’s on the road south of here. I will try go there as soon as I can. Now go!”

Godric surely spotted Dumbun’s figure as it ran off the opposite direction, but he graciously pretended not to. Perhaps a ride through his lands had helped to cool his temper. Godric put his horse in the stables and then made his way towards her. Anxiety wrung Osgifu’s nerves like a dish rag. How much should she tell Godric, if anything? She would have to explain her trip somewhat. But should she tell him about Elwyna? Godric had never been in love with Elwyna; nonetheless, they had been married for about eight years. Surely he deserved to know about her misfortune.

And if he cared about Elwyna’s well-being, then what? Osgifu had resolved to visit her sister. But what lengths might Godric go to if he chose to interfere? Her stomach flipped while considering the responsibilities. Godric had murdered three kings and an archbishop in his time, all without consequence. If he made up his mind to help Elwyna, who knew what he might do?

He seemed to share her anxiety as he approached. Perhaps he feared what she might say as greatly as she feared saying it. They stood at a distance for awhile, letting a silence stretch between them.

“I have to go see my sister,” blurted Osgifu at last. “She’s in trouble. One more visit with her might be my last.”

Godric avoided his wife’s gaze, perhaps to hide his own emotions. “I see.” He ground his teeth. They both waited, for what she didn’t know. A lone bird cawed in the distance. Godric stepped closer, though he still would not look at her. Finally he reached out and gripped her shoulder. “Do you want my help?”

“No.”

He gave one curt nod. She thanked him silently for accepting her decision without debate. “When will you leave?”

“Now, I suppose. Though I suspect I won’t be back until tomorrow.”

“Where will you go?”

She hesitated.

A new edge sharpened his voice. “Will you be in danger?”

“No,” she said quickly, hoping that God forgave her if such a statement was a lie. Walking amongst Normans who held her sister captive for murder would certainly not be “safe.” But if Godric knew that, he would find some way of watching her from afar.

She remembered that Richard’s son, Osbern, had once met Edric at a shire’s court. Both of them young boys at the time, they had played together and enjoyed each other’s company. Perhaps she could change the tone of the situation entirely. “In fact, I’d like to bring Edric with me.”

Edric?

“Yes.” She took a deep breath, determining not to deceive Godric any more than necessary. “I will be going to the castle of Lord Richard FitzScrob.”

“The Norman!

Osgifu nodded calmly. “You have always said he is our ally, as he is King Edward’s. And you may recall that his son Osbern met Edric at the shire court not so long ago. They got along well together.”

“They battered each other with sticks,” Godric growled. Then he sighed with defeat. “But they did seem to enjoy it.”

Osgifu reached up and brushed Godric’s cheek with her fingers. “Trust me, Godric. I can handle this situation.”

She felt Godric’s jaw clenching under her touch. “I don’t want Edric to meet Elwyna.”

“If he does, he’ll know only that she’s my sister.” She realized her hands were trembling and she worried that Godric would notice. She fell forward into the warmth of her husband’s arms. “I love you,” she whispered.

His lips brushed her hair. “I love you, too.” His hands gripped her firmly.

*

Edric was very excited to travel to Richard’s castle and see young Lord Osbern again. However, he sensed the graveness of his task when Osgifu explained Elwyna’s predicament, and he proved a quiet riding companion.

At Ethelbert’s church, Osgifu spoke once more to Dumbun and verified Elwyna’s location. By then the courage she had shown to Godric was fading, and her dread nearly overwhelmed her. She felt as if she would walk straight into the enemy’s nest by visiting Richard’s castle. But she nodded with resolve and asked the priest to pray for Elwyna. Dumbun would stay at the church, for Osgifu suspected his presence would only bring trouble. Osgifu and Edric would make haste to Richard’s castle, if only so Osgifu could say her goodbyes. What she might do after that, she didn’t know.

Before she left the church, she knelt by the altar and prayed.

She had asked little of God over the last few years. Ever since she broke her vows at the abbey and ran off to marry Godric, she felt as if she did not deserve to request God’s help. Sometimes, she consoled herself with the possibility that God had always intended for her to marry Godric. At the time, she believed with complete certainty that she made a righteous decision. She felt that if God had given her this life to save anyone, that person was Godric, who needed her love more than anyone on earth. And Godric was undoubtedly a man of significance. His blade had shaped the fates of several countries, though many people would never learn his name. And if not for her, he might have shaped them further. She wanted to believe that because of her union with Godric, he had learned the power of forgiveness and put away his axe forever.

She didn’t always convince herself of her own righteousness, however. So while she continued to show her devotion to God whenever she got the chance, she rarely dared to impose upon Him. Now, for the sake of her sister, she did so.

“Dear Holy Father, who saved Daniel from the lion’s den, please show compassion for Elwyna, who is in dire need of forgiveness. Please free her from the Normans and end the cycle of hate if you can find it in your will to do so. Amen.”

Once she finished, Osgifu and Edric rode for Richard’s castle.

When Osgifu first glimpsed the walls of the structure, she thought it may not be so different from any other Anglo-Saxon stronghold. Then she saw the large mound of earth rising up from the middle of the monstrosity. She watched slaves carrying rocks and glimpsed the breadth of the space within the walls, like its own little town. She wondered how all of this would look once set with stones, especially the man-made hill that seemed like the foundation of something gigantic. She feared that when all the pieces came together, the castle would truly be a sight to behold.

“So this is a castle?” Edric’s blue eyes glittered with wonder.

“It certainly will be,” Osgifu murmured.

She crossed a wooden bridge over a deep, gaping ditch. Her horse stirred anxiously beneath her. They approached a large gatehouse, and though unfinished, it looked quite imposing. Stones and white mortar comprised the bottom walls and led up to a second floor towering over the walls.

A Norman guard stepped forward to bar their passage.

Osgifu dismounted and motioned for Edric to do the same, hoping this would make them look less intrusive. She pet her horse’s neck with calming strokes. “Good day to you. I am Osgifu, daughter of the deceased thegn Lindsey, wife of Thegn Godric Eadricson. I am here to see my sister, Elwyna.”

The Norman did not seem to recognize any of the names she threw at him, but he must have determined that she was a woman of some significance. He scratched his head, then said, “Un moment.

He left and came back with another Norman, perhaps of higher rank. The man had short brown hair, but Elwyna suspected it was longer than most Normans’, who usually trimmed the back of the skull as close to the skin as possible. Soft brown locks fell long enough to frame this man’s eyes, which looked at her with the smallest hint of friendliness.

“I am Sir Ralph,” he said. “You say you’re here to see Elwyna?”

“Yes.”

Ralph looked down at her companion. “And this is …?”

“My son, Edric. He’s acquainted with Osbern FitzRichard.”

“Oh is he?” Ralph nodded. “You’ll have to leave any weapons here at the gate. Then you may follow me.”

“Thank you.”

After all the rumors she’d heard about Normans, Osgifu could not help but worry that she would never again see the weapons they handed over. Nonetheless, Ralph’s request was reasonable, so she complied and convinced Edric to give up his little seax. They followed Ralph through the gates.

The inner grounds looked especially desolate to Osgifu. Due to all the construction, the earth was lifeless and uneven, prodding her sharply through her thin leather boots. Filthy Anglo-Saxons looked over at her from their work on the walls, their shoulders hunched from the back-breaking labor. She wondered what they had done to deserve this fate, if anything.

She wondered if it had been a mistake to bring Edric when she saw the look on his face. The state of the laborers seem to shock and even frighten him.

She did not yet see her sister, but she realized with a mixture of joy and dismay that she recognized some of the workers. Several of them had worked the lands around the Abbey of Saint Mary’s which she briefly supervised as abbess. They were kind and honest folk, and it warmed her heart to see them again, though she regretted the circumstances. She had not bothered to visit many of her old friends and acquaintances after she left the abbey, for she had felt too ashamed for breaking her vows. Her guilt would only deepen if she ignored them now.

“Excuse me,” she said to the knight leading her. “May I say hello to someone briefly?”

“Eh?” Ralph didn’t look very pleased with the fact that she knew some of the slaves. But she gave him an innocent smile, and after a moment, he nodded.

Osgifu made her way to a section of the walls where men and women were scooping shale from the ditches and then carrying it to the motte.

“Alfwaru?”

The woman looked up with eyes that feared some sort of reprimand or bad news. She was younger than Osgifu, but her back sagged with exhaustion, and harsh conditions had made her skin splotched and weathered. Osgifu stared back at her in silence, trying to hide a reaction of disgust.

“Abbess Osgifu?”

To Osgifu’s profound relief, Alfwaru said her name not with dismay, but happiness. A smile pulled at her cheeks and made her dark eyes sparkle. She stepped forward to embrace Osgifu. Then she remembered herself, and her fleeting joyfulness faded away.

“Alfwaru, it is so good to see you again,” said Osgifu hastily. “Though I wonder how you ended up here, working on the Norman’s castle? Do you still live in that little cabin next to the brook?” She tried to phrase the question gently, but she could not ignore the truth.

Alfwaru bowed her head grimly. “St Mary’s Abbey was never the same after you left. The next abbess was incompetent. We had sick livestock and bad crops. The abbess lost money and sold some of her lands back to the king—including the cabin where my husband and I lived. We were already in a poor state, and once we had to start paying taxes …”

The woman lost her will to say the rest. Osgifu reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Alfwaru. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Of course, Abbess. You can pray for me.”

Osgifu’s throat tightened. “I’m not an abbess anymore, Alfwaru.”

“Maybe not. But you’re still Osgifu, the woman with the purest heart I’ve ever known.

Osgifu could hardly explain the sensation of solace that washed suddenly over her, as if a burden lifted from her shoulders she hadn’t even known was there. Today, she had finally worked up the courage to ask for something from God. Now, another person requested her voice of entreaty. God seemed to be telling her, ever so gently, that he would listen to Osgifu’s prayers, and Elwyna wasn’t the only person that needed them.

“I will pray for you,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper at first. Then she looked up and saw that several more Anglo-Saxons were looking at her. “I’ll pray for all of you!”

“God bless Lady Osgifu of Saint Mary’s!” cried Alfwaru.

“God bless you, Lady.”

“God bless you.”

Osgifu did not know how to react to the people suddenly smiling and bowing their heads to her, or looking to her with hope. She hoped her face did not betray the fear she felt—fear that she might somehow let them down.

She became all too aware of the presence of Ralph looming nearby, his boots creaking in the dirt as he shifted his weight, the shadow of his sword casting a line across the rocks. When she turned to look at him, he had his arms crossed over his chest and a heavy frown on his face.

“Finished?” he asked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

She fell in step next to Ralph and Edric once more. Edric was as quiet as Osgifu had ever seen him and she wondered what thoughts ran through his mind. His reaction to the castle seemed a combination of admiration and disgust. Ralph led them to a dining hall near the large hill of dirt, then showed them inside.

She expected to come face to face with Richard FitzScrob, lord of the castle. She knew he was a very tall man that walked on crooked feet. But instead she saw young Osbern, perhaps only twelve or thirteen years old, sitting proudly at the head of the table. Next to him sat an older gentleman wearing a long tunic and sword. On the table, candles flickered amongst fresh bowls of steaming pottage. “I am Osbern FitzRichard,” said the boy, even as he wiped his greasy mouth. Osgifu struggled to interpret his accented English. “My father is busy. Can I help you with something?”

“Hello Osbern. It is nice to meet you formally. Perhaps you remember my son, Edric?”

Osbern stared curiously at the nine-year-old beside her. Edric blinked back with wide, gaping eyes.

“Oh yes.” Osbern sneered. “I remember besting you in a stick-fight.”

Edric’s fists clenched, and at last he found his voice. “You were a lot bigger than me!” Osgifu smiled. She could still sense a boyish camaraderie between the two of them. But Osbern was still a lot bigger than Edric.

“Perhaps you should have accounted for that before challenging me to a game,” retorted Osbern. Then he sat up in his chair, eager to prove himself further.

Osgifu bowed her head. “Thank you for seeing us, Osbern. As you may recall, I am Osgifu, wife of Thegn Godric Eadricson. Unfortunately, the woman accused of murder, Elwyna, is my sister. I wish to see her.”

“No,” said Osbern. “You may go now.” He returned to eating his stew, the slightest leer of triumph on his lips.

Osgifu fought against a rising wave of despair. Perhaps bringing Edric had been a bad idea. Osbern wished to show off in front of him. Desperately, she caught the gaze of the man sitting next to Osbern. He stared back with an expression of fear and surprise.

“Thegn Godric?” asked the older man. “Son of Eadric Streona?”

“Eadric Streona?” echoed Ralph.

Osgifu nodded.

Qui?” said Osbern.

Ignoring him, the man gulped and rose unsteadily to his feet. “I am Sir Fulbert. The man your sister killed was my squire, Drogo. But I did not think the girl had any family other than her dumb brother.”

Dumb brother? Osgifu wondered just how many lies her sister was telling these days. “I imagine she did not want myself or my husband involved.” She sensed Fulbert’s anxiety and wondered how deeply it ran. Godric had gotten away with his crimes because they remained secret until they no longer mattered. Once Edward became king, a few people suspected Earl Goodwin’s involvement in the death of Harald Harefoot. The son of Canute had been found in a river with his head severed from the neck. From there, one could easily draw the connection to Godric, whom Goodwin had hired for the job. One might also connect Eadric Streona’s murder of Edmund Ironside with a trap to the little boy he had brought with him to Oxford—once again, Godric. Osgifu suspected that anyone who bothered to speculate on the deaths of several recent kings might suspect Godric’s involvement.

To further mystify Godric’s identity, he had once claimed to be the son of Thorkell the Tall before confessing that he was the bastard son of Eadric Streona. Eadric Streona was quickly becoming the most notorious traitor in recent history. Thorkell the Tall was remembered as one of the mightiest Jomsvikings the world had ever seen. No matter which version of Godric’s story one believed, the name of either father sent fear straight to people’s hearts.

Osgifu wished that she could make Godric’s past disappear. She certainly didn’t want to go stirring it up again. She resisted the urge to push these men’s fear of Godric further to her advantage. But she did not bother dispelling it. “I see no reason to involve my husband, either,” she said. “Unless there has been some sort of misunderstanding here. Can you explain to me how you came to suspect Elwyna of a crime?”

“I left her alone with Drogo in that little cabin of hers around sunset,” said Fulbert hoarsely. “She came out after nightfall and said that he had gone into a fit, collapsed, and died. But I’ve known Drogo for years. He was a healthy young man.”

“What reason would Elwyna have to kill him?” asked Osgifu.

Fulbert turned pale and didn’t answer.

The young lord Osbern looked around the room in puzzlement. “This is not court,” said Osbern. Then, to Sir Fulbert, “Is it?”

Sir Fulbert sank into his chair and stared grimly into the table.

“In that case, when will she get a trial?” Osgifu demanded.

Ralph stepped forward. “Soon enough. Lord Richard has been very busy. But he has shown considerable mercy to Elwyna by giving her work on the castle and feeding her in the meantime.”

“For that, I am grateful.” She also felt increasingly suspicious. “Now may I speak to her?”

“I said no!” snapped Osbern. “What if this one can do sorcery like her sister?”

“I assure you that’s not true,” said Osgifu. “In fact, I used to be an abbess.”

Fulbert and Ralph exchanged wary glances. Sir Fulbert said something to the young lord in Norman. Then the three of them argued briefly in their native tongue.

Osgifu waited anxiously. The discussion grew more heated, but she took comfort in the fact that Osbern seemed to be losing the fight. Finally, he declared in English, “Let them talk if you’re so determined. But if anything goes wrong, it’s your fault!”

He stood up, snorted loudly, and then stormed towards the door. For a young teenager, the thud of his boots—especially the one that dragged with a limp—sounded successfully intimidating. Nonetheless, Osgifu inwardly rejoiced. “Thank you, my lord.” She glanced curiously at Edric. “Perhaps the two of you would like to catch up in the meantime?”

Osbern scoffed, though Osgifu detected a flare of temptation in his gaze. “I have no time for child’s games.”

“Then perhaps you could show Edric around the castle?” She looked to her son. “Would you like that?”

Edric’s face lit up at the thought. “I would very much like that.”

“Very well,” said Osbern. He failed to hide the excitement in his own face. “Come with me, then.”

Osgifu turned to Ralph.

“This way,” said the knight with a sigh.

*

The Normans kept Elwyna tied up outside the stables when she was not hard at work on their castle. But even as Ralph led Osgifu closer, she did not immediately recognize the mud-sodden woman crouching on the dirt, her wrists worn bloody from ropes. So much dirt caked the prisoner’s hair that only upon close study did Osgifu see the golden-red strands winding down her shoulders. Her dress was ripped and unraveling, baring an unseemly amount of skin to any curious bystander. The gaps in her clothing also revealed the boniness of her frame, flesh practically sunken onto bone.

Osgifu stared deeply into the down-turned face, the little bumped nose, and the long red lashes. Only then did her mind connect this dirty shell of a woman to the spirited girl who had once been her sister. Without warning, sobs rose up to choke her throat. Tears pricked her eyes and she fell to her knees beside her sister.

“Oh, Elwyna!”

She wrapped her arms around the bony form and cried helplessly. Never would she have expected this sort of reaction from herself. Over the last few years, she had convinced herself that Elwyna deserved her fate as an adulteress living in exile. She had also forced herself to believe that Elwyna might have found some sort of peace living beyond the normal boundaries of society. Now she realized that had all been a daydream she indulged in order to deal with her own crushing guilt. It had been Osgifu’s fault that Godric had committed to marrying one of Lindsey’s daughters. And it had been Osgifu’s fault that Godric married Elwyna instead of Osgifu, the woman he loved, because Osgifu had run off to a nunnery. At the time, it had seem like a righteous and self-less decision. But in truth, she had never stopped to think how she would affect the lives of people who cared about her before making such a significant choice.

As if aware of the same truths, Elwyna did not respond for awhile, merely endured the weight of her sister’s sorrow. Then at last she leaned against Osgifu, returning the embrace in the only way possible with her arms bound behind her.

Osgifu pulled back and looked Elwyna in the eyes. Despite the condition of her body, Elwyna’s eyes blazed with vigor. “Why have you come here, Osgifu?”

“I needed to see you!” For a moment Osgifu was embarrassed by her own tears, by her own need validate that Elwyna’s situation was not entirely Osgifu’s fault. Perhaps her hidden guilt had largely contributed to this venture. She wanted to believe that Elwyna experienced some joy at the sight of her older sister. But perhaps Osgifu’s presence only brought her pain.

She heard the sound of Ralph shuffling in the dirt behind her, and she wished desperately that the Norman knight would leave her alone so she could speak to her sister in privacy. Perhaps it was too late for that. Too late for Osgifu to apologize for everything that had gone wrong.

So Osgifu took a breath and tried to contain her emotions. She attempted to focus only on how to move forward, rather than how to evaluate the past. She should not try to obtain privacy with Elwyna for the sake of having a heart-felt discussion. As Godric himself would say, what was done was done. But perhaps she should try to be alone with Elwyna for another reason.

“I need to speak privately with my sister.” Osgifu turned her tearful eyes toward Ralph.

“I can’t let you do that.” He looked aside to help harden his resolve.

“I understand that you must keep watch over us,” said Osgifu. “I only ask that you get far enough away that you cannot hear us. I want to hear my sister’s version of what happened, and I worry that she will not tell me everything if you stand listening.”

Ralph sighed. “Very well.” He made his way across the grounds. Osgifu watched all the while, and when she was satisfied, she nodded. The knight stopped far beyond the stables, where he could see but not hear her.

Osgifu turned back around and spoke before Elwyna had the chance. “If you really killed this man Drogo, I don’t want you to tell me. I don’t want that on my conscience. But I want you to tell me everything else.”

Elwyna scowled at her. “Why does it matter to you what I’ve been through?”

Osgifu tried to ignore the sting of that question. “I think I might be able to help.”

“It’s a bit late for you to be helping me, now isn’t it?”

Osgifu did not back down. She glared back at Elwyna and waited stubbornly until the younger woman gave in.

Elwyna sighed and sank back against the wall. “Dumbun and I built a cabin in the woods not too far from here. No one knew we were there until the two Normans came along. They ate our food, used our home like it belonged to them, and Drogo …” Her breath caught. Then she pursed her lips and spat contemptuously, “Drogo seemed to believe he could use me as his own, also.”

Osgifu’s stomach turned cold. “Did he … ?”

Elwyna gave a terse shake of her head. “No. I k—” She realized her mistake and reconsidered her words. “He died before he could go through with it.”

Osgifu shuddered as her own memories threatened to rise to the surface—memories of pain she had endured long ago, but could still sting as if she experienced it only yesterday. She had spent years burying the pain under layers of self-confidence and fortitude. Love and forgiveness had mostly healed the old wound. But never would she forget the feelings of humiliation, futility, and worthlessness that crippled her during and after the moments of her abuse.

“I understand why you might have … wanted to kill him,” said Osgifu. “Though I hope, for the sake of your own soul, that you leave punishment to our Holy Father. Realize that God wants us to forgive our enemies, not strike them back.”

“Or perhaps that’s what you tell yourself,” hissed Elwyna, “in order to deal with what happened to you.”

Osgifu did not reply, did not react. After a long stretch of silence, she wiped the last of her tears and looked away, contemplating the lack of emotions within her. Either Elwyna’s words struck too deeply to acknowledge, or Osgifu had made peace with this possibility long ago, without even realizing it. Whether her ideals of God’s will had been the reason she joined a nunnery after the incident or not, she had come to believe them, and Elwyna’s jab could not touch her.

Watching Osgifu’s calm face, Elwyna wilted. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

“Never mind. I still ask that you think about what I’ve said. If I am to to help you, I need to know that your heart is in the right place, first.”

Elywna’s lashes fluttered, afraid to hope. “You still mean to help me? But how …?”

“Elwyna. Do you ask God to forgive you for all your sins? Will you do so every day henceforth?”

The last of Elwyna’s defiance wore away. She sagged in her bonds, staring gloomily into the mud. “I do wish it had all happened differently. When he died, that look on his face … I wonder if he really deserved it.”

This admonition was enough for Osgifu. She reached out and clasped her sister’s arm. “But he died, and in the end, his death was God’s will.”

Elwyna looked back up uncertainly.

“Is it true that Drogo suffered no visible injury? Merely collapsed and died?”

“No visible injury at all. It is why they accused me of sorcery.”

“But I can vouch for you that you’re no sorceress. And as for his death, I think it’s quite clear that God struck him down because of the sin in his heart.”

Elwyna blinked back at her sister in surprise.

*

“How would you know?”

Ralph stood scratching his head, struggling to form a response to Osgifu’s bold proclamation. After speaking to Elwyna, she had walked straight up to him and announced that Drogo had not died at Elwyna’s hands, but God’s. They still stood in the middle of the castle courtyard, far from Ralph’s superiors. Osgifu almost felt guilty that she must take advantage of his kindness by putting him in such an awkward position. But she also knew that God might have placed him in her path for a reason.

“I know my sister,” Osgifu said firmly. “She would never harm another person without cause. And I think one can easily surmise, from the full description of what occurred that day, that she did not harm anyone at all.”

“Drogo’s dead!” Ralph declared, so loudly that he drew the attention of a few laborers nearby. As the sun fell and the sky darkened, most of them put down their tools and sat down to enjoy the last warm rays of sunshine. Now their attention meandered curiously to the red-headed Saxon woman arguing with a Norman knight.

“So he is. But he only has himself to blame.”

“Himself?

“Ask the man with him that day. Ask Sir Fulbert.” Hoping that her arm did not reveal the trembling of her body, Osgifu reached out and pointed. The older knight was walking out of the main hall. At the sight of her, he stopped and stared uncertainly.

Osgifu stood her ground. She remembered how Fulbert had been wary of her. Some of his anxiety came from recognizing the name of her husband. But Osgifu suspected that some fear might have come from his own uncertainty of what had happened the night Drogo died. Perhaps the two factors would combine to form a solution.

Reluctantly, Ralph waved to Sir Fulbert, who promptly walked over and fixed Osgifu with a guarded stare. “Is something wrong?”

“The lady wants to know why Drogo might be blamed for his own death,” said Ralph through gritted teeth.

Quoi?” Fulbert scowled at Osgifu, then launched suddenly into an angry torrent of Norman to his younger companion.

Osgifu did not let it last long. “English!” she yelled. “Unless you have something to hide from the rest of us?”

Her heart was hammering in her chest. She hadn’t planned any of this. Why had she said “us”? She glanced around and saw that many Anglo-Saxons were watching her. Some of them came closer to listen. Some of them whispered to each other, spreading her name. She felt as if power flowed through her, though she couldn’t explain where it came from, or whether she had carried it within herself all along. Either way, she felt as if she swam in a stream with a building current, growing stronger and stronger, and she had little choice but to trust where it led her.

Ralph gulped, noting the tension that had started to gather around them. “Fulbert was telling me that your sister had no right to live in that cabin. She was on Lord Richard’s land without his knowledge. She was lucky that they did not arrest her right away for not paying rent.”

“And I’m sure she lived there before Lord Richard came here.” Osgifu struggled to rein in a surge of anger. She was starting to understand why so many people spoke angrily of the Normans. They behaved as if all Anglo-Saxons were “lucky” the Normans let them do anything at all. “In any case, it seems to me that you have neglected giving her a trial and used her situation to add another laborer to your castle. Let’s not put it off any longer. Let us decide her fate, here and now.”

Sir Fulbert turned very red in the face, but could only make a weak retort. “Lord Richard is absent.”

“Then fetch his son, Osbern.”

Fulbert scoffed. “If it will get you red-headed girls out of my sight, then I will!

As Fulbert stormed away to get the young boy, Osgifu’s stomach turned. She wondered if she had not just done something foolish. The boy had not taken kindly to her and seemed very temperamental. But she trusted her instincts and waited as patiently as she could.

The teenaged lord looked irritated indeed as Fulbert practically dragged him into the courtyard. Edric trailed behind them, scowling. Both he and Osbern seemed agitated. Had the two of them fought together?

“What is going on here?” cried Osbern. Then, to Ralph, “I told you this was your problem!”

Edric hurried over to his mother, then stood next to her with his arms crossed over his chest. Edric and Osbern glared back at each other.

“Yes, my lord.” A wave of red crept up Ralph’s neck. “But we have delayed Elwyna’s trial, and perhaps we should get it over with.”

“In that case, go on and hang her. We already know she killed Drogo.”

A wave of dismay rolled through the gathering crowd. Osgifu felt its strength almost tangibly, and she knew then she had made the right decision by calling for Osbern. His ostentation would be his demise.

“We know nothing of the sort,” she declared. “We know that Sir Fulbert left Drogo and Elwyna alone in a room together. And we know that Drogo died without any visible wounds.”

“Sorcery,” said Osbern.

“I swear to our Lord in heaven that my sister is no sorceress.”

Alfwaru’s voice rose suddenly from the crowd. “And I believe her! Osgifu was once the abbess of Saint Mary’s! She was the most God-blessed woman I ever knew!”

A few voices rose to echo Alfwaru’s.

Osbern glared at them all irritably. “Is this what you call a trial?”

“In Engla-lond, we judge a person based on the merit of those who speak for her.”

“Then you have the word of a Norman knight against the word of a … you.” Osbern waved his hand at her helplessly. Osgifu smothered a flicker of sympathy for the boy. He seemed as if he did not really know what he was doing here, handing out judgment, and he resented his role entirely. Never mind. Osgifu did not particularly want to be here either. But she would do what she must for her sister.

Once again, Osbern’s words worked against him. The voices in favor of Osgifu rose louder. Sir Fulbert glowered darkly, all too aware of his own lack of popularity.

Osgifu knew this was her moment. “And why would Sir Fulbert wish to admit the truth? He left Drogo with Elwyna so that Drogo could force her into bed. He doesn’t want to admit that his companion’s heart had spoiled with sin. For Elwyna had no need to lay a hand upon Drogo. God smote him down as punishment for the greed and lust already poisoning his body!”

The crowd of Anglo-Saxons roared in agreement. Some of them picked up their daily tools and held them high. Anger simmered in their air even as the sun’s warm sunshine faded with its fall.

Osbern shifted nervously. For a moment, his big brown eyes widened with fear. Then his hand twitched at the sword on his hip. His energy shifted from fear to anger. “I’ll tell you how we hold trials in Normandy,” he yelled, loud enough to silence everyone, though his voice screeched slightly. “We judge a person by those who will fight for him!”

Osgifu could not hold back a smile. He had laid a trap for himself even better than any she might have invented. “Do you really want me to bring forth my champion?”

Silence fell over the mud-ridden camp. Osgifu stared calmly back at the Normans while she watched the blood drain from their faces—except for Osbern, who only seemed to grow more puzzled.

“Well then? Who?”

“Don’t do it, my lord.” Fulbert’s voice was hoarse, his shoulders sagging with defeat.

Osbern clearly hated the fact everyone seemed to know something he didn’t, and he only grew angrier. “That’s for me to decide! Who is this champion?”

Ralph gave Osbern an imploring look. He walked closer to the young lord and lowered his voice, though Osgifu could still hear him. “My lord, her husband is Lord Godric Eadricson. He is a dear ally to King Edward, and might have been responsible for his rise to the throne. We should not make him an enemy.”

Osbern’s fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides, his dark eyes glaring at Osgifu until they seemed to bore a hole. But he was running out of arguments.

“It’s not worth it,” added Sir Fulbert. Then, more loudly, “This wench has been of little help to us in building our castle, anyway. She is mostly a drain on our resources.”

This point seemed to sway Osbern more than any other. “Damn right she’s not worth it!” He spat forcefully into the dirt, no doubt as he had seen many older men do to greater effect. “We’ve wasted enough time on this already. The skinny woman’s no use to us. And I doubt she ever could have killed a strong squire such as Drogo, anyway. If God simply chose that moment to take Drogo to heaven, then so be it. Get her out of here, Saxon, if she’s so important to you. But never let her set foot in Father’s lands again, or she will hang!”

Osgifu did not realize how long she had been holding her breath until she finally let it out. There was no resounding applause, no joyous celebration—only a few murmurs of relief. But she knew that she had finally done it. She had helped her sister get another chance. In the meantime, she felt as if she had acquired one of her own.

**

Releasing NEXT (July 24, 2012)—

Young Hereward (later known as “the Wake”) finds out that a Norman castle is being built in Shrewsbury and rides with a group of rowdy boys to cause trouble.

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. A full list of sources can be found on the right column of this blog.

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