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.
“So when young, and as he grew older, [Hereward] advanced in boldness day by day, and while still a youth excelled in manly deeds. In the meantime he spared nobody whom he thought to be in any way a rival in courage or in fighting. In consequence he often caused strife among the populace and commotion among the common people. As a result of this he made his parents hostile towards him; for because of his deeds of courage and boldness they found themselves quarreling with their friends and neighbors every day, and almost daily having to protect their son with drawn swords and weapons when he returned from sport or from fighting, from the local inhabitants who acted like enemies and tyrants because of him.”
—Gesta Herwadi, Chapter II
After washing his face, Hereward studied his reflection in the water of the stream. His face pleased him, the jaw broad and sturdy, the lips thick, the nose gently curved, and his pale eyes sparkling with slightly different shades of blue and gray. His sandy hair fell in a sleek swoop to his shoulders. Though only eighteen, he already stood as tall as most older men and his bare shoulders spread thickly with muscle. He had an appearance to make women swoon and men run in terror. He grinned with satisfaction.
Then he recalled that lately, people had been calling him the terror of the city of Bourne, and maybe all of Lincolnshire. They tired of his pranks and brawling. Hereward believed that such complaints arose out of envy. They feared that one day he would grow up to become more powerful than his father. And perhaps his parents feared this, too. For rather than reward him for his victories, they only punished him—which made Hereward even more determined to act out against them.
His reflection shattered as the water splashed. Hereward glanced around for the culprit. Further down the stream, some members of Hereward’s gang played in the water, but they were not close enough to be the source of the disturbance. Altogether, about twenty young men languished with Hereward by the babbling stream. Ash and elm trees spotted the surrounding fields, yielding swathes of shadow across the bright green grass. A few of the boys had taken off their tunics to bask in the warm summer sunshine. Others cooled their skin in the waters of the stream. The rest tried to find naps in the shade of the trees. Like Hereward, many of their heads still ached from drinking too much the night before, so they covered their eyes and searched for oblivion.
Hereward could now discern a thrown rock sinking to the bottom of the riverbed; someone had thrown it at him, thus causing the splash. Suspecting one of his comrades of foul play, Hereward turned to identify an unexpected visitor, Martin, as the culprit. The tall, lanky fellow already had another rock poised for throwing.
Hereward stood and roared with anger. “Martin!”
Martin “Lightfoot,” a man whose long legs were both fast and silent, must have sneaked past the wine-sick boys easily. He shouldn’t be here. Eager to atone for their negligence, a few of the fellows pounced on Martin, grabbing his fancy tunic of red linen and tugging at his dagger-laden belt.
Martin probably could have run away from the boys if he wished. Instead he endured their rough handling, meeting Hereward’s scowl with a shameless smile. The expression came out looking like an uncomfortable distortion of his long, gangly features.
“Go home, Martin,” snarled Hereward. “I’ve no need of my parent’s spy.”
“And I’ve no need of a pompous bully,” said the fleet-footed gentleman. “Nonetheless, Lord Leofric wanted me to come here and give you a warning. He heard about your fight last night with poor Eadwig. Apparently, you bashed the man’s face so brutally both his eyes are swollen shut and he hasn’t climbed out of his bed this morning.”
“It was a fair fight,” said Hereward, though he could hardly remember it. In truth, he had probably been the one at a disadvantage, for he was so besotted with drink at the time. A few of his comrades echoed their agreement.
“In any case, if you piss on the pride of a single more Bourne-man, your father will ensure you can never do it again. For now, Lord Leofric commands that you and all of your companions go home, not to reconvene until further notice.”
“Not to reconvene, eh?” Hereward swaggered closer, balling up one fist and considering where to place it on Martin’s body. Unfortunately, his knuckles still hurt from last night.
“Peace, Master Hereward.” Martin maintained his smug smile. “I am only the messenger. And if you wish to give your father a message in return, I will gladly carry it for you.”
Hereward considered this, his fingers unwinding. He glanced around at his comrades. They all looked uneasy, for a threat from Lord Leofric—normally a cool-tempered man—was no laughing matter. “In that case, tell Father we have followed his wishes. We will not cause trouble here again any time soon.”
“If that’s true, then God bless you, my lord. However, I require convincing. I must bear the blame if my message is false. You understand.” His smile spread wider, revealing some yellowed teeth.
Hereward sighed and searched for his belt, discarded by the river with his tunic. On it, he found an unfamiliar pouch—no doubt taken from Eadwig the night before. He weighed its contents, took a few coins for himself, then threw the rest to Martin. Martin deftly freed one of his arms to catch it, revealing he might have escaped at any moment if he chose.
“And how will I explain your absence?” asked Martin, dropping the purse into his tunic.
“Tell him I went hunting and I want to be alone for awhile.”
“Very well. Happy hunting, then.” Without further ado, Martin slipped from his captors and ran off, his long legs a blur across the grass.
Martin’s message should have left Hereward furious, but in fact he felt liberated. For a long time he had suffered his mother’s and father’s wavering disapproval and insufficient reprimands. Now that they gave him no other choice, he would show them he could break free of their yanking leash.
Hereward looked over his gang and his heart stirred with pride. These boys would follow him anywhere and do whatever he asked of them. They were not yet housecarls in title, but someday they would be, and when that day came, Hereward would indeed surpass his father in the possession of men’s loyalty.
“Listen up, boys!” His robust voice swept forcefully across the field. “I have an idea.” The boys gathered closer, hanging on to Hereward’s every word despite their throbbing heads.
“Bourne may be tired of me, but I’m even more tired of Bourne,” he declared. “Father doesn’t understand me. The people here don’t understand us. We’re not just a group of young men looking for fun and games. We are warriors, born to lead our country to a better future. And right now, this town is blind to the bigger events happening outside our shire. Perhaps it’s time we ventured out to show them what we’re really capable of.”
Some of the boys exchanged uncertain glances. To his surprise, Hereward felt a shred of anxiety winding through his own limbs. The idea of venturing beyond Lincolnshire—outside the protection of Hereward’s family—was new and frightening. It was also exhilarating. But he had hoped the boys’ excitement would feed his own courage.
“What are we going to do?” asked Osric, one of Hereward’s closest companions. The pale, freckled lad chewed on a piece of grass while twirling a knife in his hands.
“We’ve all heard about the Normans causing trouble, especially in the west, closer to Wales. I hear they are actually building castles there like they do in their country.”
“Not the Normans!” Chubby Dudda’s voice squeaked with dismay and the awkwardness of his age, stuck somewhere between boyhood and manhood. A few other boys laughed, but the mirth was short-lived, because they all awaited Hereward’s response.
“Why not the Normans?” roared Hereward. “They’re giving our countrymen trouble. So we’re going to give them some trouble in return. Do you remember Queen Emma’s prophecy, God rest her soul? She said that if the Normans built their castles in Engla-lond, our country’s lands would drown in blood. We can’t sit idly by and let that happen!”
He expected cheers and whole-hearted applause. Instead, a single, soft voice rang loudly through the silence.
“Don’t do it, brother.”
Hereward turned with a sinking heart to his younger sibling rising from the ground. Few people would ever guess the two boys were brothers; Wilburh had thick, ashy hair, bright blue eyes, and a skinny frame. More importantly, Wilburh had a gentle temperament like their father and a respect for authority. Most people found it strange—including Hereward—that the nicer boy chose to follow Hereward’s gang. Sometimes, Hereward suffered guilt at the notion Wilburh might simply look up to his older brother, even if most people considered Hereward a bad influence.
Hereward shook his head of such thoughts, for guilt did not become him. He could not be blamed for his brother’s choices. He could only restrict them somewhat. “You stay here, Wilburh. I didn’t want you coming, anyway.”
Wilburh flushed red at the back-handed insult. Nonetheless he stood his ground. “Don’t you remember what happened a few years ago when some English-men quarreled with a Norman lord? King Edward wanted them punished, and when Earl Goodwin refused, he nearly started a war.”
The dismay that spread through the group felt palpable. Hereward hadn’t thought about that, himself. Insulting the Normans was even more dangerous than he’d expected. But that also made the prospect more enticing. “So we’re to bow down to them like cowards? This is what I’m talking about, boys. We need to show them we’re not afraid!”
“What are we going to do?” repeated Osric, sinking his dagger into the dirt.
“I’m not sure yet,” snapped Hereward testily. Why must they always need specifics? “First we’re just going to take a look at one of their fucking castles. Then show them it’s not so easy to build on Saxon soil.”
“Please, don’t!” The desperation in Wilburh’s voice was almost embarrassing. “Father will be furious!”
“I said go home, Wilburh. And anyone else here who doesn’t have the balls for this mission, run home now and hide under your mother’s skirts.”
A long silence stretched after his words. Hereward congratulated himself for wording his challenge in such a way that no one would dare refuse.
Then, to Hereward’s shock, a few boys got up and moved towards Wilburh. They would not meet Hereward’s gaze. A few more bowed their heads in shame, then got up to join the first group. A few became a dozen. Hereward could not believe that so many people would abandon him now, in the face of his most ambitious excursion. Soon there were only eight left still standing with Hereward.
“Cowards!” he hissed to the backs of the traitors.
“No. We’re the smart ones here,” said Wilburh.
Hereward scoffed. But he regretted that he had acted with such hostility, for the group now felt irreparably severed. He still wanted these boys to be a part of his gang when he returned. So he tried to lighten his tone when he said, “You’re all going to be so jealous when we get home with stories that will spread the ladies’ legs open.”
Wilburh frowned back at him, unable to come up with a good retort, as he knew little of such things. Then he turned and started to walk away. Hereward’s traitors made to follow.
“You’ll regret this!” cried Hereward. “You’ll see!”
But soon Wilburh and his new companions walked beyond hearing range, and Hereward stood alone with his smaller, nervous crew.
“When are we going to leave?” asked Dudda. His presence surprised Hereward, who would have expected the pudgy teenager to be among the first to flee. Perhaps Dudda feared disappointing Hereward more than facing some Normans.
“Right away,” said Hereward.
“On foot?” Osric sheathed his dagger and stretched his legs in preparation.
“No. It’s a long way.” He thought about it a moment. “I know a stable nearby where we can borrow some horses. But we should wait until nightfall.”
Dudda’s face fell. “By ‘borrow,’ you mean …?”
Hereward grinned and smacked Dudda on the back. “It’s still called borrowing if we return them later.”
The journey across three shires to a Norman castle proved more difficult than Hereward first expected, full of toll payments, rude guards, and suspicious travelers. Hereward became unusually wary of getting into trouble, because people did not recognize his name this far from home. His father would not be around to persuade the shire reeve that Hereward did not actually disturb the king’s peace. And Hereward did not have a very deep pocket with which to pay fines.
But he did not lose heart, and he prided himself in his ability to adapt to the situation. He also became quite grateful that his entire gang had not come along, after all, for that would have been far too many mouths to feed and beds to find. On the second night of their journey, they had nearly run out of money, so Hereward gambled on a few fist fights, winning every one and filling his purse once more. Osric achieved the same success with knife-throwing. The next morning, an angry wife came yelling after them, but otherwise Hereward and his boys moved on with little harm done.
At long last, Hereward reached the town of Shrewsbury. He continued to hear rumors of a Norman castle being built further southwest. Several hours later, he found himself standing in front of the muddy monstrosity.
Hereward left his horses and companions in the woods nearby, save for Osric and Dudda, who crept closer with him to get a good look. The two lads provided a balanced support of Hereward; Osric’s thin, limber frame served well in a scuffle or tight place, just as Dudda’s roundness and big bones could provide sturdy support. Dudda also had a sharper mind than one would first suspect, and he helped tame Hereward’s ambitions by remaining practical.
“This will be tricky,” said Hereward.
They all stared up at the gatehouse and the grounds around the spiked walls. A deep ditch surrounded the perimeter of the castle, so deep that an average man might not be able to climb out without help. The deep counterscarp bank led even higher up to the castle walls, most of which were wooden palisades. But in some sections, walls of stone stood partially erect.
They dared move a little closer in order to see through the gate. The grounds of the castle continued to slant upwards towards a large mound of earth sticking high over the huts and cabins. On top of it, a complex wooden framework reached towards the sky. Hereward had never seen anything like it. The large tower looked like it would eventually be about three stories high and nearly fifty feet wide. Eight buttresses wrapped round the structure, forming an octagon.
“It’s like its own little burg,” said Dudda with dismay.
“Except that eventually, it will all be stone.” Hereward pointed to a slave going through the gatehouse with a cart of rocks. Ashy stones and white mortar already comprised the gatehouse itself, which towered high over the walls and made a formidable defense. “The Anglo-Saxons are building their own prison.”
“Well it’s not stone yet,” sneered Osric. “I see wooden buildings inside. So let’s burn them down.”
The idea tempted Hereward. But he feared such an action might be too drastic and would lead to severe punishment. How could he say so without sounding like a coward? “We don’t want any Saxons to get hurt.”
Osric shrugged. “We could warn them beforehand. Even get them to help us.”
“Don’t burn anything,” insisted Dudda. Hereward silently thanked himself for bringing along the voice of reason. “I think what will hurt the Normans most is losing that framework on the mound. I think it’s called a keep, and if I’m right, it will eventually be the core of the castle, where the lords sleep.”
“In that case,” said Hereward, “I have an idea.” He gestured back to the woods with excitement. “Let’s return to the others.”
The rest of the gang did not get as excited about the plan as Hereward, but they complied easily enough, perhaps because they were all eager to finish the task and return home.
In preparation, Hereward reluctantly exchanged his tunic for that of his scraggliest follower, then splashed some extra mud on his tattered outfit. Dubba and Osric also tried their best to look poor, ragged, and desperate. Hereward appointed a few other boys to stay with the horses. The remaining companions would stay as close to the castle gate as possible without looking suspicious. They would watch and listen for signs of trouble, especially the shrill whistle Osric could make by sticking both his fingers in his mouth.
“Very well then,” said Hereward. “Let’s go.”
The thrill he felt as he walked towards the gate of the castle was unlike any he had ever experienced. Fist-fights and hunting could hardly compare. Today he would strike the Normans right where it hurt most and, in doing so, forge a name for himself that his father would have to take seriously.
But he could let none of his excitement show right now. He dragged his feet, hung his head, and avoided the gazes of the guards who watched him approach. They ignored him in turn, just as he had hoped. They did not notice the curiosity on his face as he crossed the bridge leading to the gatehouse. The bridge sprouted from the ditch on a thick column supporting its middle. A series of heavy ropes also attached the bridge to the gatehouse. He suspected the bridge had some method of twisting sideways and preventing entry in the event of a battle.
Only when he was nearly through the gate did an arm reach out to stop him. Hereward silently blamed Osric and Dudda for drawing the unwanted attention; their fear caused them to lag behind.
The Norman guard said something Hereward did not understand. The foreign accent distorted English words beyond comprehension. Hereward resisted the urge to scowl at the foreigner in disgust, responding instead to his tone.
“Sorry we’re late,” said Hereward. “We had some problems at the farm, and—”
“Just get to work,” snarled the Norman, more clearly this time. As Hereward expected, the scoundrel didn’t want to acknowledge a slave any longer than necessary, much less talk to him. So Hereward bowed his head, thereby hiding the hatred that flared in his eyes, and walked inside.
It was so very easy.
As he proceeded across the muddy bailey, the large, haphazard structure of walls, huts, and frames seemed to close around him like a fist. He smelled the filth of humans and animals, especially horses, which the Normans rode across the grounds while surveying the laborers. The guards didn’t even bother to clean up after the horses or dogs that dropped shit around the workers. From the chopped wood, stretched leather, mixed mortar, and dirty rocks, everything around him seemed to be made of brown filth.
The misery of the work site seeped into his bones like a cold wind. The weight of the task given to these unwilling Saxons shoved down their shoulders and strained their bent backs. Even though the Saxons toiled slowly, their long-term exhaustion pervaded Hereward’s senses like a contagious disease.
He jolted as a Norman walked by carrying a basket with a strange little creature inside. It was fat and furry with beady eyes and long, floppy ears.
“What’s that?” he cried aloud, unable to help himself.
“A rabbit. For my wife’s new warren.” The Norman gave him an uncertain look. This one had longer hair and a piercing stare. He didn’t seem so afraid of looking a slave in the eyes, and for a moment, Hereward’s stomach churned with fear. “Are you new here?”
“Somewhat? Well, I am Sir Ralph. Welcome to Lord Richard’s castle.”
Hereward nodded awkwardly, surprised by such civility.
Ralph held up the basket. He stuck his finger through the reeds and stroked the rabbit’s fur. The creature trembled with terror, but Ralph only grinned. “You’ll be glad we brought rabbits to Engla-lond. They make a good meal. They also fuck a lot and make even more rabbits.”
Hereward nearly forgot himself and matched the Norman’s smile. He liked Ralph. But not enough to forget his purpose.
Ralph must have sensed Hereward’s guardedness, for his frown returned. “What are you three supposed to be doing?”
“Chopping wood.” The answer came to Hereward swiftly. He wanted any job that might put his hands on an axe.
“Chopping wood, eh? Most of that is done in the forest, before it’s even brought here.”
“Well, I was told there was some wood to chop at the castle.”
“Who told you that?”
“I … I …” Hereward’s hand crept involuntarily towards the dirk on his belt. “I don’t remember his name.”
Ralph’s frown deepened, but he seemed eager to move on and cease chattering. “Go see Lord Richard FitzScrob. He’s overseeing the construction of the keep.” Ralph pointed and waited until the boys moved their feet in that direction.
As Hereward approached the looming mound of dirt and shale, he cursed under his breath. The man-made hill stank, as if the earth had vomited its unwanted garbage and deposited it here. The wooden frame of the keep on top might have looked elegant in contrast if Hereward did not know it would be used as a weapon against Anglo-Saxons.
On the other side of the bailey, two Normans began sword-fighting. The sight took Hereward aback until he realized they only fought for sport. They wore helms and chainmail as preparation. This didn’t seem like the time or place for that, but they didn’t seem to care. On further study, Hereward suspected that one of the swordsmen was actually very young, barely a teenager, but his thick-boned frame made up for his youth. He moved awkwardly, perhaps still adjusting to his growing limbs, and he favored one foot which turned slightly inward. But he swung and chopped with his sword like a Viking berserker, and Hereward could not help but admire his vigor.
The sound of clanging swords now rang harshly through the castle grounds and grated on Hereward’s nerves. He felt naked without his own sword or axe at hand. When the time came to escape, he would have to do it quickly or there would be hell to pay. Even the young sword-fighter with a bad leg might get the best of him.
Finally, Hereward spotted a large, broad-shouldered man with a long, jutting chin and two crooked feet standing near a stack of logs as Ralph had described. The must be Richard FitzScrob. The lord leaned against a post as he watched his slaves work on the frame of the keep, his wide forehead gleaming with sweat though he lifted not a finger. His tunic flapped in the breeze against his misshapen legs.
Hereward spat into the dirt and mumbled to his companions. “Fucking Normans. I don’t want to talk to their lord.”
“Then what are we going to do?” Dudda looked around in terror, his eyes lingering on the sword-fighting duo. The poor fellow looked ready to piss himself.
“We’re going to chop some logs anyway. Follow my lead, boys. This will be easy.”
He tried with all his might to believe his own lie as he crossed the remaining distance to the slaves at the logs. He took a deep breath and convinced himself that he did this every day. He was just a poor local slave, coming to do work at the castle. No one had any reason to be suspicious of him. Just going to work …
He ignored Lord Richard, walked right up to the slave chopping wood, and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hello. I can take over for a little while if you want to rest.”
The Saxon gladly allowed this, releasing the shaft of the axe from his blistered palms into Hereward’s hands. With a sigh of relief, the slave hobbled away.
A wave of satisfaction rushed through Hereward, though he tried to restrain it. The ease of sneaking in here and putting his hands on an axe proved just how submissive his fellow Anglo-Saxons had become. These Normans expected obedience and humility. Hereward would show them that not all Anglo-Saxons had forgotten their pride.
Fear prickled up his skin as he sensed Lord Richard watching him. He hesitated. Perhaps he should wait to act until Lord Richard was distracted. But if he waited too long, he might be discovered. Then he would have no chance at all. He had no idea how he was supposed to be chopping these logs, and Lord Richard might realize that quickly. What other option did he have?
Hereward’s hands tightened on the axe. He lifted it slightly.
A scream pierced the air behind him. His heart felt like it would burst in his chest. He nearly flung the axe in a panic. But he twisted to see that the scream had come from one of the sword-fighters. The older soldier crouched on the ground, cradling his arm while blood poured from his wrist. His arm ended there, in a fountain of blood, for his hand lay uselessly on the ground like a lump of meat.
The younger boy took off his helm. His face was set in an expression of fierce determination; no remorse lingered there at all.
“OSBERN!” roared Lord Richard, and Hereward realized that the boy must be Richard’s son. Richard FitzScrob came off the post on which he’d been leaning and began limping out to the scandalous scene. “What have you done to Bernard?”
Osbern crossed his arms in front of his chest, even while continuing to clutch his bloody sword. “It seemed the only way to defeat him.”
Richard yelled something in Norman. Then the two proceeded to argue in their native tongue.
Now that Hereward realized the disturbance had nothing to do with him, his courage returned. The Normans were distracted now. This was the perfect chance to act.
Without further ado, he leapt over the pile of the logs and began scrambling up the mound.
Doing this was more difficult than he first anticipated. The hill inclined sharply. Under his clawing fingers, the shale scraped his palms. Belatedly he noticed a staircase nearby, but he felt too proud to use it. He slipped and slid as he hastened upwards, all while continuing to grip the axe.
He heard anxious murmurs from the Saxons behind him. A few Normans were yelling, but Hereward hoped that their cries had more to do with the man who had lost his hand sparring than the mysterious Saxon climbing the motte.
At long last, he reached the top and grabbed a post on the large frame of the keep. The complexity of the eight-sided structure intimidated him. If the frame had been complete, he most certainly would not have been able to topple it by chopping one buttress alone. But fortunately, the keep was not yet finished. He located the weakest buttress under the section with the most weight. A lot of ropes also provided support, and those would be easily severed. When he found the perfect spot, he hurried closer and readied his axe.
He recoiled the weapon, then swung with all of his might.
The blade’s first bite of wood had minimal effect, spitting a few splinters and creating only a small dent. But Hereward kept swinging, and each time, the post weakened. The entire log began to bend and crack. Above it, connected parts of the keep’s frame leaned and creaked with strain.
People started to notice.
Hereward kept swinging regardless, pausing only to look down and find Dudda and Osric on the ground below. He motioned towards an unfinished section of the wall and they moved towards it, understanding.
On the next swing, the entire frame bent over. It would fall soon. Hereward heard a shout most certainly directed at him, but he didn’t stop chopping. He must finish this, or it would all be for naught.
Pain shot up his leg and he realized he’d been struck by a rock. He thanked God it had not been an arrow and kept swinging. He glimpsed a Norman with a sword climbing the mound towards him. Hereward put all of his might into another blow.
The beam was cracking. The entire frame would topple with just a little more help. He needed to sever some of the ropes. Hereward had to move around the structure, risking getting pinned under his own destruction, but he put faith in his own agility. He sliced the strained ropes and moved out of the way.
At last, the wooden frame of the keep toppled. Beams cracked and fell rolling down the motte. One log struck the Norman who had been climbing and pinned him into the shale.
Hereward lifted his axe high, for everyone was watching him now, and roared with all of his breath. “Fuck the Normans, and fuck this castle! This isn’t their land!”
He saw the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons staring up at him. He wondered if some of them would take heart and encouragement from his display of rebellion. Even now, he saw mostly fear and despair in their gazes. Only a few faces showed the sparks of anger and hatred that he had hoped to ignite, and he worried they weren’t strong enough to result in action.
Then he saw an arrow speeding towards him. He dropped his axe and took off running.
The piercing shriek of Osric’s whistle was a welcome sound to Hereward’s ears. The remainder of his gang would respond to that sound and arrive with the horses. He flailed as he rolled down the mound, finding this a faster method than attempting to keep his footing. He flung earth from his hands and feet as he righted himself and kept running. He glimpsed Osric and Dudda waiting for him in the unfinished section of the wall he had indicated. The Normans focused so much on Hereward they forgot about his companions, which might have given him comfort if not for the fact he had several bows trained on him as a result. He heard another arrow whistle past his ear. Then he barely managed to dodge the swing of someone’s sword.
The Anglo-Saxons slaves may not have cheered Hereward on, but they shared the same enemy. When the Normans came after Hereward, a few of the slaves moved to stop them. The slaves dared not initiate combat, but at least they blocked the Normans’ progress while giving Hereward a clear path to escape.
By the time he approached the half-built wall, Osric waited for him on top while Dudda stayed below to help him up. Hereward stepped onto Dudda’s ready hands and sprang upward. Osric gripped his arms and helped him the rest of the way up.
From the top of the wall he could see the horses galloping out of the trees, and he could taste victory like sweet mead on his lips. He had done it. He had shown the Normans that even one of their precious castles could not withstand the vigor of a young man born of the Fenlands. The frame of the Normans’ keep had toppled and they didn’t even know what to do about it. For the most part, they still floundered in a state of panic and disbelief.
Meanwhile, Hereward’s companions had arrived with the horses. Hereward’s triumph faltered under a wave of fear as he realized how far he would have to jump to cross the ditch. The landing would hurt even if he made it across, and if he didn’t … he looked down into the deep pit beneath the wall and gulped.
For the spry Osric, the jump posed no problem. He leapt across and rolled as his slender legs struck the grass. Soon enough, he had found his horse and climbed up its saddle.
Hereward wanted to do the same thing, but first he had to help Dudda. He turned back and reached down to grip the boy’s pudgy hands. He groaned as the weight of his companion strained his arms.
“A little help, Dudda!” he hissed through gritted teeth. “Damn you’re heavy!”
An arrow seemed to sprout suddenly from Dudda’s leg. Then Dudda screamed, and his entire body went limp. All of his bulk sank into Hereward’s grip, and Hereward realized that if he let the fat oaf slip down any further, Hereward would never be able to lift him back up.
He gritted his teeth so hard he wondered if his jaws would crack. He squeezed the wall between his legs until he felt the stones grinding against the bones of his knee. Then he pulled with all of his might.
Dudda’s desperation must have given him a surge of strength as well, for with another kick of his good leg, he propelled himself enough to grip the wall and start pulling. Hereward wasted no time yanking Dudda’s girth until his body rolled onto the top. Then he realized that Dudda stood almost no chance of jumping.
Hereward ducked as another arrow sped past his hair. Dudda groaned with agony.
“Dudda, you have to get up and jump,” growled Hereward. Hardening himself to his friend’s cries, he wrenched the large boy to his feet. “We’ll do it together, and I’ll try to help you.” He met Dudda’s eyes, which glazed over with pain. Hereward searched them desperately for a sign of understanding. “Ready, Dudda? On the count of three. One, two, three!”
Hereward crouched briefly, coiling the muscles of his legs like springs before launching himself over the ditch. He gripped Dudda with one hand as he flew and dragged the boy’s girth into the air behind him. A squeal of agony ripped from Dudda’s throat as his own wounded leg pushed him forward. Together they soared over the darkness of the pit, and for a moment, it looked ready to swallow them. Hereward feared that even if his own feet touched the other side of the ditch, Dudda’s would not. He used all of his strength to throw Dudda a little further forward. Doing so sacrificed his own momentum.
His chest slammed against the side of the ditch as Dudda landed with a scream in the safety of the grass.
The impact shoved Hereward’s breath from his body. He began slipping downwards, his head spinning. Only when he nearly reached the bottom did he come to his senses enough to dig his fingers into the rocky earth. His entire body ached from the impact, but he forced himself upward, and at long last came scrambling out of the ditch.
He gasped for breath as he collapsed next to Dudda. “Osric, HELP!” Osric rode closer and helped lift Dudda onto a horse. Dudda couldn’t straddle it; the pain of the jump had rendered him unconscious. Meanwhile, the arrow protruded from the back of his leg and penetrated all the way through the front of his shin. All they could do was throw him over the saddle on his stomach, then slap his horse’s haunches.
By then another Norman had climbed the wall after them. A few stones from Hereward’s companions knocked him backwards. Hereward mounted his own horse and lashed it with all of his might.
Hereward and his friends rode towards freedom. But the constant sound of Dudda’s moaning soured all feelings of triumph.
“God, can he not keep quiet for just a few fucking hours?”
Hereward and his eight followers sat in the dark, too frightened to light a fire even as black night crept through the treetops. They had ridden from the castle like madmen and not stopped until one of the horses went lame and Dudda awoke and started screaming again. He hadn’t stopped since.
Before the sun fell, Hereward tried to take a good look at Dudda’s injury, but he didn’t know what to make of it. The leg bled profusely, and Dudda’s movements had ripped the surrounding flesh wide open. The arrow must have pierced a nerve based on the extent of Dudda’s agony, and he now seemed unable to move his leg at all, as if long sequence of muscles had been damaged.
Hereward had eventually decided to pull the arrow out, for the wound gaped so large it would bleed a lot anyway. He asked Osric to find cow dung and bring it back to them, for he’d heard this had healing powers. Then they wrapped the wound tight and gave Dudda ale to drink. Despite all of this, Dudda never stopped moaning and his injury never stopped bleeding.
Hereward wandered as far from Dudda’s groans as his conscience allowed, then leaned against a tree and looked up at the moon. He upended a pouch of ale over his mouth only to receive a few meager drops. He threw it aside with a growl.
Osric slipped quietly up beside him. “Maybe we should leave him here, then come back.”
Hereward was glad that someone had voiced the idea before he did. “Maybe. Might be better for him anyway, to just stay here and rest. We could drop him off at a church.”
A dark silence stretched between them.
“Do you feel good about what happened today?” asked Osric.
“Yes, of course.” Hereward thought he spoke the truth. So why did he not sound convincing? “We taught those bastards a lesson.”
Osric nodded, desperate to believe him.
After that they tried to sleep, though this was next to impossible due to Dudda’s constant groaning. And in the darkness of the woods, most of the boys feared evil spirits or wicked elves. In the morning, Hereward announced his decision to the others. Dudda did not understand his fate until he noticed that a few of the boys were carrying him towards a church. He started squirming.
“Hereward?” he moaned. “HEREWARD! What’s going on?”
Hereward reluctantly leaned over to face him. “Dudda, we’re going to leave you with some monks. Hopefully they’ll tend to your wounds. I’ll come back for you soon, I promise.”
“No, Hereward, please!”
Dudda reached out to grasp Hereward’s hand. Hereward gave the chubby fingers a firm squeeze.
“Dudda, you’ll be fine. If anyone realizes who you are, they’ll be cowering in fear of you. They’ll do whatever you tell them to. You’ll see.”
“No. No! If they recognize me, they’ll murder me! All of them! Not just the Normans, but the Saxons, too! Thanks to us, they’ll probably be punished. They’ll probably be forced to work harder and faster to make up for what we destroyed. Don’t leave me here, I beg you. Don’t leave me here!”
Hereward yanked his hand from Dudda’s. He suddenly felt nauseous. “He’s feverish. He must have caught an evil spirit overnight. Get him to the monks, quickly!”
So they left Dudda at a church with the lame horse, without explanation, and hastened back to Lincolnshire as if the hounds of hell chased after them.
Hereward convinced himself he had done the right thing. Everyone else would see that, eventually.
Releasing NEXT (August 7, 2012)—
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:
- Gesta Herwardi. Translated by Michael Swanton. Edited by Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. Originally Published in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Press, 1997. Internet 2012. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/hereward.htm
- 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 viewable on the right column of this blog.