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.
Godric had heard many descriptions of the first Norman castle in Shropshire, but today he observed it in person for the first time. He did not feel especially impressed. Sections of a stone curtain wall rose and fell inconsistently between gaps filled by palisades. Godric surmised that the Normans had run out of stone not far into the project, or something to that effect. Perhaps they’d used all available rocks on the gatehouse, which looked formidable enough. It was the first structure on the castle to be made entirely of stone and mortar. But it would serve little purpose if the walls remained unfinished and the lord had no safe home to sleep in. Altogether the construction of the castle appeared irregular and sloppy, which no doubt resulted from the reluctance of the laborers. Godric wondered why more of the Normans didn’t do the work themselves, if they were such experts.
As he rode across the swing bridge, Godric studied the Norman guards on the other side. They failed to impress him, also. After hearing so many rumors of their bullying nature and military prowess, Godric found they paled in comparison to the Jomsviking warriors with whom he’d once fought. These were ordinary men dressed in chainmail, their bodies drooping under the heat of the summer sun and the boredom of a long day. They stared back at him with wary glances, their gazes lingering especially long on the eyepatch covering the scarred flesh of his right socket.
“I’m Thegn Godric,” he told them. “Lord Richard FitzScrob wanted to talk to me?”
The guards exchanged surprised looks, then snapped to attention. “Of course, Sir Godric,” said one of them. “Please follow me.”
One guard took Godric’s horse and the second led him into the castle grounds. Godric’s opinion of the castle continued to drop as he proceeded. The slaves cowered in the shade and the Norman guards stood idly by, all labor seemingly halted. Godric noted the mess of wooden logs draping the sides of the raised motte and wondered what in Valhalla had happened here. He didn’t know why Richard had summoned him; he hoped the reason had nothing to do with this God-forsaken mess. However, he appreciated the chance to finally meet the notorious Norman in person, whom he had only seen from afar in the shire court until now.
He soon found himself standing in the lord’s hall, a meager wooden building which Godric assumed was temporary. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. Then he discerned the large shape sitting at the table through the candlelight. Richard FitzScrob’s dark eyes stared at him from a long, bony face, composed of a drooping mouth and thick furrowed eyebrows. The man’s short haircut only emphasized the hugeness of his skull and the thickness of his overall frame. The lord was large without being fat, and Godric admired that in a man who had trouble getting around.
Godric had met various kings, earls, and chiefs in his lifetime. Nonetheless, he had never been very good with formalities. Perhaps because he had never cared for authority.
He found himself bowing awkwardly. “Lord Richard.”
“Godric Eadricson. Or is it Thorkellson?”
Godric’s eye narrowed. He had tried to come clean with his identity years ago. Members of the royal court had only known him as “Thorkellson” during the reign of King Canute, when Godric pretended to be Thorkell’s son Harald. If Richard bothered to voice the question, he probably intended to make a point: he knew more about Godric than his simple thegnship in Shrewsbury. “My father was Eadric Streona,” Godric said at last, straightening and looking Richard in the eye. “Why have you called me here?”
Richard stared back at him a moment, as if to make sure they understood one another. The only thing Godric understood was that Richard had already managed to irritate him. But Richard nodded, as if satisfied, then waved for the guard to leave the room. “Please have a seat, Godric.”
Godric gladly obeyed, for the long ride here had left his knee aching. He appreciated a goblet of wine from Richard even more, which Richard poured and handed to him. Godric drained the cup in a few gulps.
When he set down the empty chalice, he found Richard still staring across the table at him, his own wine untouched. “I called you here because I have a strange situation and I’m not sure how to solve it. I hear you are a … capable man.”
A warm thrill rushed through Godric’s veins. He detested his reaction even as his heart stirred with excitement. Did this man want him to kill someone? And why did that so entice him? He had promised Osgifu he was done with that life. However, he had broken that promise already. Hiding that secret from her tormented him enough. Would adding another be any different? Or unbearably worse?
His mind went round in circles until a long silence had passed. Richard watched him closely all the while.
“A few days ago, a group of Saxons came here and befouled my castle. You might have noticed the result outside.”
“You were attacked?”
“Not exactly.” Richard’s leathery skin turned a deep shade of red. “They were a group of young men, very unorganized, and by the looks of them I fear they thought of their crime as no more than a prank. But their actions deserve a grave punishment, and I intend to make them understand that.”
Godric felt increasingly uncomfortable. “The law is on your side. Punish them yourself.”
Richard flinched to be spoken to so brusquely. But he let it go, and after a moment, leaned closer. “This is a sensitive situation. I don’t want to appear as a tyrant. Nor do I want to make this about Normans against Anglo-Saxons, or I would send one of my own men. But I want to ensure that no one else ever attempts this again. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t.” Godric leaned closer as well, lowering his voice. “I’m not going to kill someone for chopping your fucking tower.”
Richard leaned back again, duly unsettled. “I never said I wanted you to kill him.”
“Then what in God’s name am I doing here?”
Richard finally took a sip of his wine. His hand shook slightly. “Perhaps we got off to a bad start. Let me tell you more about the boy who wronged me. My men have already discovered his identity; the culprit abandoned one of his wounded friends, Dudda, at a church not far from here. Dudda gave us information in exchange for mercy. The gang leader is named Hereward, and he’s the son of Lord Leofric of Bourne, Lincolnshire. I’m sure he has plenty of money to pay whatever fines I may throw at him. That is why I want to make my point in a different manner.”
“So you want me to … ?”
“Frighten him. Your reputation might be enough to accomplish that, if he has heard of you. If not, I don’t care how you scare him.” He leaned close again, eyes narrowing. “Nor do I care how far you go to subdue him. If you saw fit to kill him …” The large lord pulled back again, shrugging his shoulders. “I confess the thought appeals to me. But all I care about is that you make a point. Any point you make will be much more profound because you’re the one making it, rather than one of my men.”
Godric hated to admit that he wanted to take this job, and badly. He had known that right away, though he hated to consider why. Long ago he had convinced himself he enjoyed overseeing farmers, chopping wood, and tending animals as a daily lifestyle. Yet every day he fought the feeling of restlessness stirring deep down inside him, the desire to bring out his true skills, the need to face danger, the thirst for something like … battle.
He shifted in his seat, hoping that to Richard, he seemed to be struggling with the decision. “What do I get out of it?” he asked hoarsely.
“I’ll pay you twenty shillings,” said Richard, though he sounded reluctant.
Godric looked up, his one eye fixed on Richard with new determination. “King Edward brought you to Engla-lond. King Edward chose you as one of the few Normans to remain even when he sent many others home. You are a faithful servant of King Edward’s. And so am I.” He sat up straightly. “You don’t need to pay me.”
Richard’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction. “In that case, Godric, you will most certainly obtain my friendship.”
Godric nodded and stood, infused with a feeling of righteousness. By pursuing Hereward for free, he could claim he wished only to uphold the king’s justice. And by strengthening his friendship with Lord Richard, he could tell Osgifu he was trying to maintain peace in the shire—a rather fortunate consequence.
He could hardly wait to begin. “Where is Dudda now?”
It seemed a miracle that the boy named Dudda had not yet died by the time Godric got to him. The arrow-wound in his leg bled, swelled, and oozed pus. The boy sweated profusely and his skin burned to the touch. He spoke nonsensically and his eyes glazed over as if he stared into a nightmare. Godric did not think he would learn anything from the boy unless he took drastic measures.
“Light a fire outside,” Godric told the monks. “Bring me a sword, or a poker.”
“You’re not going to hurt him, are you?” asked one of the monks.
“Oh,” said Godric, “it will hurt.”
Godric took Dudda’s weight in his arms and lifted him with a grimace. The old wound in his shoulder ached and he silently cursed this boy for being so heavy. Then he carried Dudda outside.
Only when he placed Dudda near the fire and stared binding his arms together did Dudda show any sign of consciousness. He started squirming and looking around in a panic. “What’s going on? Who are you? What are you doing to me?”
One of the monks arrived with a poker for Godric, though the monk hesitated to hand it over. Godric took the iron rod and thrust it into the fire.
“Hold him still,” Godric told the monk.
The monk shook his head and lifted his hands. “I’ll not have any part in this!” Then he ran off.
Godric grumbled to himself but did not argue. He preferred doing things on his own, anyway. So when the poker was ready he pulled it out and approached Dudda.
“No, please!” Dudda tried to squirm away, but with only one good leg and two bound arms, he failed. Godric grabbed his shoulder with one hand and pinned Dudda’s good leg under his knee. Then he brought the smoking poker towards the bloody flesh. “Don’t hurt me! I’ll do whatever you want!”
Godric hesitated. “You’ll take me to Hereward?”
“Yes! Yes I will!”
Godric didn’t know whether Dudda’s help would speed up his journey more than slow him down. Either way, he planned to finish what he started. He took out a pouch of ale and handed it over. “Drink.”
Dudda obeyed. After a few gulps, Godric pulled the pouch back and upturned it over the injury.
Dudda screamed and thrashed.
Godric pinned him again, then forced the empty leather pouch into Dudda’s open mouth. “Bite down on that,” he suggested. And thrust the hot poker into Dudda’s wound.
After a muffled scream, Dudda swiftly passed out.
Osgifu did not react well to an unconscious youth being flung before her doorstep. Godric began his explanation with the only statement he knew would win her favor. “I am helping him.”
After that, his wife calmed enough to hear his description of the talk with Lord Richard and the mission he now embarked upon. He followed her to the outdoor kitchens where she plucked warm bread from the griddle and stirred a pot of vegetables. Even when he finished explaining, she did not speak for some time.
“We were going to kill one of the pigs tomorrow,” she said at last, her voice soft and distant. “I know how much you’ve been looking forward to some pork.”
“I can have some when I get back.” He reached up and ran his fingers through her red hair. “Osgifu. I need to support Richard FitzScrob. His presence here is King Edward’s will.”
“And what about forgiving our enemies for their wrongdoings? What about turning the other cheek?”
“That is not Richard’s way.”
“Fortunately for you.”
The comment stung like a barb. She immediately seemed to regret her words, but she could not take them back. She knew Godric rejoiced in an opportunity like this, and the truth would now hang between them like a toxin.
“I’m sorry, Godric.” She reached out and gripped his hand, though she continued to avoid his gaze. “I don’t like the fact that you’re doing this, and I admit, I don’t particularly like Lord Richard. But if you truly believe it’s the right thing to do, I won’t stop you.”
They stood quietly for a time, their entwined hands a desperate attempt to stitch the rip she had sliced between them.
“Have you heard from your sister?” asked Godric. He had tried to avoid talking about Elwyna ever since he heard she was in trouble. All he knew was that somehow, by traveling to Richard’s castle, Osgifu got her out of it. But he couldn’t help but wonder what had happened, and whether it had anything to do with Osgifu’s feelings towards Lord Richard.
“No.” Osgifu straightened and put a practiced smile on her face. “But she will be safe where I sent her.”
“And where is that?”
Osgifu’s smile faltered. Godric realized he probably shouldn’t have asked. But Osgifu seemed so confident, he couldn’t help but be curious. “It’s, uh … a cabin. Deep in the woods. Deeper in the woods than she was before. I knew about it because Lady Aydith …”
“Never mind.” Godric’s stomach turned. “I’ve heard enough. Don’t tell me.” He released his wife’s hand and turned to check on Dudda, who still lay unconscious outside the main hall. Their guest had acquired a companion. A splotch of red hair marked the presence of eleven-year-old Edric, who stood staring at their guest with big blue eyes.
“Damn,” growled Godric, and made his way towards his son.
Edric immediately cowered as Godric approached, as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t. Godric loomed over him and crossed his arms.
The stubborn little youth did not back down. “Did you do this, Father?” He pointed to Dudda’s wounded leg.
“What? No!” Godric crouched down to study the injury. To Edric it must look terrible, but Godric thought it looked better than when he first found the fellow. Now the flesh was swollen and burned, but at least some of it had folded together over the wound, and most of the pus had been seared out. “Well, I did try to heal it.”
“Looks like you didn’t succeed.”
Godric scowled. Then he reached up and opened his tunic. He pushed down the fabric enough to bare his shoulder, where an angry knot of flesh still marked an arrow-wound he’d received in Sweden. “My shoulder looked about as bad as his leg many years ago. But I used heat to melt the flesh back together and drive out the bad bile.”
Edric did not look convinced. His gaze returned to Dudda. “How did he get hurt?”
“He made some Normans angry.”
“Normans!” Edric’s little nose wrinkled with anger. He had accompanied Osgifu on her trip to Richard’s castle, and ever since he seemed to despise them. “Bastards!”
“Edric.” Godric lifted a warning finger. “Don’t you forget that I am a bastard.”
“But you call people that all the time!”
“Yes, well …”
“Time to eat!” Osgifu’s call saved him from coming up with an awkward excuse for himself. But Edric grinned from ear to ear, aware that he’d bested his father.
Godric feigned a kick as Edric scampered into the hall, but the little rascal was too fast for him.
They had hardly begun to eat before Dudda’s groans echoed through the dining hall. Godric told his family to ignore the sound, but Osgifu got up to fetch the boy some pottage. Godric did not budge until he finished his own meal. Then he told Edric to find some honey. They carried it to Dudda and smeared it over the angry injury.
Dudda watched them with teary eyes, fearful yet desperate to trust them. “What did you do to me?”
“I did my best to heal you,” said Godric. “Now you must rest. Tomorrow, we ride for Bourne.”
Many times, Godric questioned his decision to bring Dudda along. But once the journey began, he could not change his mind. The pudgy boy complained constantly and slowed their progress to a crawl. The strain of riding caused him constant pain. Godric searched for ways to take advantage of Dudda’s presence, despite his inclination to bash the boy’s head in.
“Hereward abandoned you,” he pointed out one night across a waning fire. “Do you still trust him?”
“I suppose I should have seen it coming.” Dudda slurped some ale as he stared wearily into the glowing embers. Despite complaining all day, his skin was returning to a normal color, and his eyes glinted with the first hint of anger. “He always put himself before others.”
Godric nodded. In truth, he felt curious to meet the brave youth who would travel so far from home just to insult some Normans. In different circumstances he might have admired the fellow. But for now, he needed to focus on the boy’s faults. “Because of Hereward, the Anglo-Saxons in Shropshire and Herefordshire will have to work harder and faster on Richard’s castle. Richard will be more suspicious of his workers and certain of his need to protect himself. Furthermore, he will now build more of the castle in stone. What else did you think such a petty crime would accomplish?”
“We wanted to send a message,” grumbled Dudda plaintively.
“And now Lord Richard will send one back.”
An ominous silence followed Godric’s words. Dudda’s shoulders drooped over his belly. His sad eyes stared deep into the fire.
“Please don’t kill him,” said Dudda at last. “Despite everything, he is my friend.”
Godric’s eye met Dudda’s gaze over the flames. He hadn’t decided yet what to do to Hereward, but he doubted the rebellious youth would respond well to a heart-felt conversation. “Do you have a better suggestion?”
Dudda sighed. “I don’t know.”
Godric stared pointedly at Dudda’s leg. “Perhaps I could do to him what he did to you.”
“Normans did this to me!”
“Yes. Well …” Godric shrugged.
“You could try talking to his parents!” Dudda sat up with excitement. “That’s what you should do. They’re already very upset with him. They are prepared to take drastic measures. Lord Leofric even told Hereward that the next time he misbehaved, he would be punished severely. ”
“Mm.” Godric doubted any punishment from Hereward’s parents would satisfy Richard. He picked up a stick and poked the fire irritably.
“Are you a Viking?”
The question caught Godric by surprise. He had wondered if Dudda knew anything about his past or not. Now he had his answer. Perhaps the rumors of his past deeds—already more widely spread than he liked—had not spread so far as Lincolnshire.
“I mean … you kind of seem like one,” Dudda continued. “Your clothes look Danish. You’re clearly a warrior of some sort.”
Truly enough, Godric had never lost his taste for Viking fashion, even after leaving Jomsborg. His gauntlets were made of intricately wound leather, and the collar of his tunic folded and laced in a manner uncommon to Engla-lond. He also wore his hair long and sometimes lightened it with limewater. “You’re very observant.”
“I ask because Hereward’s family is Danish. They deeply mourned the passing of King Canute. I think they will respect you and pay heed to your demands.”
Godric stirred restlessly. He couldn’t deny that Dudda made a good case. He had no better plan anyway. So what might he ‘demand’?
If Lord Leofric had mourned the death of Canute, then Godric probably shouldn’t mention his own involvement in the event. But he may yet manage to impress them. “Perhaps they would appreciate the fact that I was personally trained by Thorkell the Tall?”
Dudda’s eyes doubled in size.
The Fenlands had a special beauty to them, for the horizon dropped as if the whole continent of Engla-lond slanted towards the ocean, slipping gradually into the salt-water like a woman dipping her leg. The low valleys gleamed with ponds and riverbeds, flanked with rows of brilliant green reeds. The firmer lands flourished with trees and plants, whether in the form of forests of beech and pine trees or rolling pastures speckled with shrubs of golden flowers. Cows languished in the cool marshes and waterfowl floated across the glassy ponds.
Hereward’s family lived on a firm plot of land lush with orchards and gardens. Dudda accompanied Godric to the large wooden manor in order to give Godric support. Godric did not know why he continued to begrudge the young man’s help, for indeed, Dudda made everything simpler. Hereward’s parents gladly lent their ears to Godric. They listened with horrified expressions as Godric and Dudda explained what Hereward had done, and they apologized profusely for their son’s behavior. Then they awaited Godric’s judgment.
Godric could think of only one punishment that would satisfy Richard without bloodshed. When he voiced it, Leofric became gravely quiet. After a few moments, the lord asked for a day to think it over. But he also admitted that he had already considered dealing with his son in the exact manner Godric proposed.
Dudda at last went home, groveling to Godric in thanks of his mercy. Godric departed from the fellow as quickly as possible. But he could not go far, for he needed to await Lord Leofric’s decision. He settled into the tavern of a small, rickety inn on the rough outskirts of Bourne and proceeded to lose himself in liquor.
At first he didn’t even know why he was drinking so much. He rarely drank in such abundance at home. Nothing of great consequence had really happened today; in fact it seemed quite likely that Richard’s problem would be solved with little effort whatsoever. So why did he feel as if something lurked deep inside him, gnawing at his nerves, turning in his belly, and filling his mouth with the bitter taste of dissatisfaction?
He lost count on the refills of his drinking horn. The entire tavern seemed to sway around him, and all the faces became blurry. He found himself tapping his foot and thumping his fist on the table to the fast-paced ditty of the tavern’s musicians. A woman played the drums while a man’s slender fingers plucked deftly at the strings of his psaltery. When the song concluded, Godric stood up and walked over to them, though he found keeping his balance unusually difficult.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” he declared. He reached out and gripped the shoulder of the minstrel with the psaltery. The man flinched with surprise, but Godric gave him a reassuring pat. “Let me buy you a drink.”
Godric led—or perhaps dragged—the minstrel up to the innkeeper’s counter and purchased some mead for the gleeman, as well as some more for himself. He lifted his sloshing horn high. “To music,” he said, “and to friends.”
The minstrel wore a puzzled expression, but drank his mead nonetheless.
“You know,” said Godric with a happy sigh, “music really is a wonderful thing.”
The gleeman attempted a smile. “Thank you. Naturally, I agree.”
“I don’t think you understand.” He leaned close to the minstrel, lowering his voice. “I’m being very serious. You are …” He breathed deeply, searching his mind for the words. Nothing seemed to express what he felt right now clearly enough. “You are God’s gift to mankind. Or Thor’s. Or someone’s. The point is …” He reached out and gripped the minstrel’s shoulder. “You saved me. You helped me find the way. God, I don’t know where I’d be without you. And now … now …”
He squeezed so tightly that the gleeman winced with pain. Godric hardly noticed, for he was suddenly consumed by a pain of his own. He didn’t even know where it came from—only that it seemed to crush his chest and smother his breath from within.
“Now I feel lost again. I think about going home and I get sick to my stomach. Maybe I’m not the man Osgifu believes me to be, after all. Maybe I never can be. Maybe … oh, Sigurd!” He fell forward and wrapped the minstrel in a smothering embrace. Tears flooded his eye and trickled down his cheek. “I am lost again, Sigurd.”
“My name isn’t Sigurd!” With much wriggling and squirming, the minstrel finally freed himself from Godric’s clutching arms. “I don’t know you and I can’t help you at all, stranger!”
The gleeman gave a last, forceful shove, and Godric and his stool went hurtling backwards.
Godric awoke to the sensation that two spikes were winding up his neck, prodding the back of his skull. His aching eye showed him that he lay in a dark room of the inn, sharing the floor with many other travelers. The smell of roasting meat drifted through the cabin walls from the tavern kitchens and made Godric painfully aware of his churning stomach. He barely had time to turn sideways before he vomited up the remnants of last night’s meal into the bug-ridden rushes.
The memories of the night before came back to him in blurry pieces. He couldn’t put them into any sort of meaningful picture except that he knew he had greatly embarrassed himself. He hoped he had managed not to tell anyone his name. Perhaps he could soon go home and forget that any of this ridiculous mission had ever occurred at all. He tried to clean up after himself, then quickly made his way out of the room.
In the tavern he avoided the gazes of every occupant and bought himself some breakfast. The food helped settle his stomach but did nothing to relieve the stabbing pain in his head or weariness of his body.
He also felt a strange ache in his heart that he supposed had driven him to drink so much in the first place. In the dull throb of the morning, his inner pain threatened to resurface. Normally, he might try to smother the feeling in the arms of Osgifu. Here he had no such option.
He felt like a fool. Why had he come here? Why had he agreed to this ridiculous task? Surely enough, it proved to be bloodless. But that left him with the awful realization that he hoped it would not be.
He paid his dues and made his way out of the inn. He had half a mind to assume that he had fulfilled his promise to Richard and ride straight back home. Hopefully the parents would punish Hereward as he suggested—they seemed as if they’d already decided to anyway, and just needed to muster the courage to go through with it.
He was on his way to the stables to retrieve his horse when the shadows of three men fell over him.
Godric squinted at the silhouettes, fighting the pain in his skull as the sun bored into it. After much discomfort he managed to discern that the men were quite young, except for one on the left, a tall gentleman with especially long legs. The one on the right was smaller and lanky, twirling a knife in his fingers. And the one in the middle must certainly be Hereward. Godric knew as soon as he met the youth’s gaze. The lad was well-built and handsome, nicely dressed and groomed. But his face was red, his eyes swollen as if he had been crying for hours.
“You’re the man named Godric?” he asked hoarsely.
Godric sighed and nodded. “Yes, what of it?”
He did not even have time to flinch before Hereward’s fist came hurtling towards his stomach; as the blow hit, Godric wondered if he might lose yet another meal in front of an audience. Somehow he held it in, but he still bent far over, clutching his stomach and struggling to stay standing.
“Some Saxon you are,” sneered Hereward. “I try to make a stance against the Norman parasites on our country. And you have me exiled from Engla-lond?”
Godric took in a weary breath as he straightened back up. “So your parents decided to go through with it, after all.” Despite all the pain of his wine-sickened body, Godric’s heart lifted. He had accomplished his goal. He had gotten Hereward exiled, and thus made an intimidating example of him. Richard would be pleased.
“Yes. So they did.” Hereward reached out and grabbed the top of Godric’s hair. He twisted the strands and forced Godric to look at him. “I’m an outlaw. I suppose that means I can do whatever I want now and it won’t make much difference, eh, Godric?” He leaned in close, lowering his voice. “Perhaps that was a mistake on your part.”
Godric saw Hereward’s hand curling up on the corner of his vision. The fist sped forward. Then it smacked against Godric’s palm.
Hereward’s eyes widened with surprise. Absorbing the blow required more strength than Godric cared to admit, and his shoulder complained of the effort. But he did not let this show, and spoke back to Hereward in a calm and level voice. “I am loyal to King Edward, and I will fight for his decisions.” Godric’s fingers wrapped around Hereward’s fist and began to squeeze it. His other hand grabbed the arm yanking his hair. He tightened his grip around Hereward’s wrist, feeling the strain of fragile bones under the skin. “You say your stance is against the Normans. What does that mean? You must try to fight for something, Hereward. Not just against.”
Hereward cried out with pain as Godric’s grip became excruciating. Then his face twisted with anger, and he shifted to make his next move.
Godric saw the kick coming, but he did not have the time nor energy to dodge it. Instead he merely tried to prepare himself for the blow, tensing and curling as Hereward’s boot thrust into his stomach. But he was still sore from Hereward’s punch and he already felt sick, so the blow overwhelmed him more than he expected. He lost his footing and stumbled backwards, catching himself with clumsy hands in the grass. His head throbbed and the world spun around him.
“Foolish old man.” Hereward pushed back his shoulders and thrust out his chest as he looked down at Godric.
Godric took the opportunity to recover his breath and reorient himself. He noticed a stack of logs nearby. Someone had left an axe still lodged in the wood.
“I can do whatever the hell I want,” Hereward continued. “Now more than ever. I can travel the world as I please. I can bed whomever I want; I can quarrel with whomever I’d like. I don’t even have to make a fucking stance. I can simply fight for me.”
Hereward moved closer. With a flick of his wrist he had his knife in his hand, flashing in the morning sun.
Godric shuffled backwards across the grass. Hereward followed him, knife poised. To anyone watching, Godric probably seemed to be backing away in fear. “You remind me of someone I once knew,” hissed Godric. “He believed God had chosen him for greatness. He did not care who got hurt because of his own pride and greed.”
“I will be a hero!”
Godric’s back stopped against the woodpile. “And he was a king. I don’t give a shit. You are still just a man, and you will bleed as red as any other.”
“As will you!” cried Hereward, and dashed forward with the knife.
Godric dodged and twisted as the blade split the side of his tunic, not grazing the skin. Meanwhile he swung out both legs and entangled them in Hereward’s, knocking his feet opposite directions. As Hereward fell, Godric grabbed the axe and wrenched it free. He straightened while Hereward sputtered and thrashed against the grass, fumbling to keep a grip on his knife. Just as he was starting to right himself, Godric sent a kick to his ribs. He struck hard enough to wind young Hereward, who struggled to draw a ragged breath. Godric climbed to his feet and stood over him, axe at the ready.
The slender fellow in Hereward’s gang was the first to interfere. Godric knew to expect this, but he pretended to remain oblivious as the boy sneaked towards him with a dagger. He moved swiftly and silently, and Godric might have gotten stabbed in the back if he hadn’t known better. At the last moment Godric reached back and knocked away the assailant’s arm. He gripped the middle of the axe-shaft and swung the blunt wood across the boy’s skull. Perhaps he struck a little too hard, for the boy passed out immediately, blood trickling from his forehead.
Godric sent a warning glance to the last man standing, the older fellow with long legs. The man seemed to know he was bested and kept his distance, a resolute frown on his face.
Hereward was squirming again. Godric’s boot on Hereward’s forearm kept him pinned, for he could not even lift himself up without straining his elbow the wrong direction. But Godric worried about Hereward’s tenacity getting the better of him. He stomped harder, and did not realize he had gone too far until he heard a small snap followed by Hereward’s scream.
“It’s your own damn fault,” said Godric, trying to mask his own guilt for breaking a bone on accident. “You’d better stop struggling, for you’ve already lost.”
Godric lifted his axe. At first he planned to deliver a non-fatal injury, like chopping off Hereward’s hand. Then he wondered why he shouldn’t just see the job all the way through. After all, he’d already broken Hereward’s arm.
His veins felt on fire. Despite his embarrassment last night, despite the illness with which he’d awoken, he suddenly felt more invigorated than he had in years. He could kill this braggart right now and do King Edward another favor. An exile would not even require a life price. Most people would turn a blind eye on Godric’s decision. Lord Richard would both trust and respect him. But more than anything, killing Hereward would satiate that gnawing sensation deep in his guts, the one that kept him up at night, the one that made a fool of him in Osgifu’s absence. That awful hunger, or whatever it was, might go away—at least for a little while.
The aim of his axe faltered. The decision weighed too heavily. Better just to swing the axe, and let it fall as it willed.
The kick in his side seemed to come from nowhere. He thought the tall man remained too far away to touch him. But somehow he had moved close enough to catch Godric within the reach of his long legs. Godric stumbled backwards, barely managing to keep hold of his axe.
His exhaustion and wine-sickness got the better of him. A searing heat burned through his skull and threatened to blast out his only eye. He felt nauseous again, so his stomach ached inside and out, sore from being punched and kicked. He managed to stay standing, hiding his state of pure debilitation, and perhaps that was the only reason he walked away with his life.
As Hereward got up, his eyes tearing with rage and pain, he looked ready to rip Godric apart with his bare hands. But he could not do so. He cradled his broken arm while his long-legged friend pulled him the other direction.
“Martin, let go of me!”
“You go on. I’ll get Osric. We must away, Hereward. You’re in no state to fight this man.”
Martin picked up the unconscious Osric while Hereward continued to glare at Godric with eyes of blue fire. His jaws bulged with strain as he nearly grinded his teeth apart. But as his long-legged friend suggested, Hereward kept his distance. “You bastard,” he snarled. “I hope you burn in hell one day.”
Hereward turned and staggered away. With Osric in his arms, Martin sprinted after him. Godric stood unmoving until he watched the three of them get on their horses and vanish in the horizon.
Then he dropped his axe and fell to his knees. His hands were trembling. They reached to his belt and pulled out the long dagger, or seax, with a ruby on the hilt of it. He had carried it with him a long while now. It had tasted much blood.
Why had he accepted this mission? Why had he nearly killed Hereward? Hereward was just a cocky young man with wayward ambitions. He differed little from some of the Jomsvikings Godric had known and admired in the past. But Godric had nearly killed him anyway. Because he would never change. He would never stop thirsting for blood. Sure, he would behave so long as he stayed in his little cabin and kept his axe in the shed where it belonged. But given the right opportunity, he would go right back to being the man he did not want to be. The man Osgifu did not want him to be.
He sheathed the knife and searched for a small pouch of ale still on his belt. Even if it made him feel sicker, he didn’t care. As long as it got rid of this horrible feeling, he would drink it.
Godric started and dropped the pouch. He thought he must be going mad, for he turned and saw a familiar minstrel with soft blond hair, wearing colorful linens and a little green cap. Surely it could not be possible. This must be the worst wine-sickness he had ever experienced.
The minstrel fell towards him. Wrapped Godric in his arms. Held him tight, and spoke with a sweet, melodic voice. “Godric, that’s not going to help.”
“Sigurd?” This was no liquor-induced hallucination. Sigurd really crouched here in the mud of Lincolnshire, embracing Godric and speaking words of comfort. Godric grabbed the minstrel’s shoulders and pushed him back. “What are you doing here?”
Sigurd’s funny little beard twisted with a bashful smile. “I followed you.”
“Why the hell would you do that?” Godric didn’t realize until Sigurd’s cap fell off that he was shaking the minstrel much too forcefully.
Sigurd twisted out of Godric’s grip and put his cap back on with a reddening face. “I happened to visit your house shortly after you left. Osgifu acted strangely. She didn’t want to tell me where you went, though she couldn’t completely lie about it, as it’s not in her nature. I wrested the last bits of truth from Edric.”
“That little … !”
“Suffice it to say I put the clues together and—well, Godric, I know you. I worried that things might get … out of hand. I worried that you might do something you’d regret.”
Godric felt increasingly mortified, as much by the fact that Sigurd had been following him all this time as the fact he’d been right to do so. “How much did you … ?”
Sigurd cocked a curious eyebrow, but answered honestly. “I only caught up to you this morning. But it seems I did so just in time.”
“Sigurd. I …” Godric’s voice caught. All the words he’d said last night returned to him from the liquor-laden fog in his head. He wondered if he ought to say them again. But they caught somewhere in his throat, unable to come out. He felt the pricking of a tear against his eye, but his body was too parched to release it.
Sigurd waited, watching Godric intently. The long silence stretched between them, on and on until all of its potential seemed to crack and crumble away.
“I can’t believe you were watching that entire time and did nothing,” said Godric at last.
Sigurd sighed and shrugged. “I was ready to interfere, but that Martin fellow kicked you before I could. Fast legs, that one.”
Godric glowered. “I mean I can’t believe you didn’t help me.”
“Help you? Why would I possibly think you needed help against that sorry lot? Though I am surprised you look so exhausted. You must really be getting old, Godric.”
Godric shoved the minstrel again as he climbed to his feet. He staggered on his first few steps towards the stables. When Sigurd put an arm around his shoulders, Godric leaned ever so slightly against him.
Releasing NEXT (August 21, 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:
Remfry, Paul Martin. Richard’s Castle 1048 to 1219. SCS Publishing. 1997.
A full list of sources is available on the bottom right column of this blog.