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.
RICHARD’S CASTLE, SHROPSHIRE
All Audrey wanted to do was sleep. Despite her night meal of pottage and bread, her stomach continued to ache with hunger. Despite the thick calluses across her palms, her skin still felt raw from carrying stones all day. Despite the vigor of her youth and the strength of her muscles, her body never ceased to feel sore and weary. And despite seven years of experience with which to grow accustomed to her fate, she dreaded tomorrow so much that her head spun just thinking about it. But the one thing she looked forward to each day was the end of it: that sweet moment she could lay down her body, let her muscles unwind, stare up at the flickering ceiling of the slaves’ hall, and sink slowly into oblivion.
Distractions often made sleeping difficult. Lice ran abundant in the hall, and she spent many nights scratching and tossing in her blankets. Some of the slaves often caused noise, despite their own weariness. A few of them would drown their sorrows in ale and make a great ruckus before finally passing out. A romantic couple often tried to make love quietly under the blankets, but the woman’s moans of pleasure would echo loudly enough to make Audrey blush and stir in her own bed. But Audrey’s fear of the future plagued her most of all. Anxiety that the next day would be worse than the last sometimes chased the relief of sleep away from her.
Over time, Audrey had learned to conquer most of these distractions. She had trained her mind to push aside bad sensations and thoughts until nothing but a blank awareness remained. From that state, she drifted easily into dark slumber.
But something about tonight was different. The voices she heard talking were her own friends, if such things existed in Richard’s castle. The boys had all entered servitude around the same time as Audrey—the year Richard FitzScrob chose to seize control in Shropshire by seizing his his tenants’ children or undesirables. And they were not just telling silly stories to distract themselves from the grim monotony of their everyday lives. No—they were talking about escaping.
She tried to cover her ears. She tried to roll away and scrunch into a ball as if the entire world would cease to bother her as a result. Even then, she could not stop hearing their foolish conversation, spoken far too loudly, revealing their idiocy with every word out of their mouths. Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Audrey crawled out of her blankets, forcing her heavy limbs to unfold and carry her towards the group of five teenagers huddling in the corner. They shut their mouths upon her approach and stared up at her with guilty eyes. Somehow, despite the fact Audrey was the youngest and smallest of them, they always seemed to wilt in her presence.
“Escaping is easy,” she hissed. An itch in her knot of blond of hair made her reach up and scratch angrily. “Don’t you all understand that? I could have escaped a hundred times before if I wanted to. The reason I haven’t is because there’s nowhere for us to run. If we went home, our families would just have to turn us back in or live in fear of Lord Richard’s wrath while trying to hide us.”
“Fuck our families.” Rodgar’s brown eyes glared at Audrey through the candlelight. He was the oldest of the group at sixteen years, and he liked to take control of any situation, especially if he sensed Audrey trying to wrest it from him. Audrey always felt intimidated by him, for he was much bigger and experienced in the world than she was. The fact he was rather handsome with his dark, chiseled features and long lashes didn’t help matters—but Audrey tried not to think too much about that. Rodgar had probably been the one to start this discussion about escaping in the first place, and he would not let Audrey hinder his plans. “Our families are the ones who gave us up and put us here.”
“They had no choice!” This from Gimm, a skittish and ugly fellow who nonetheless carried an undue compassion for people in general. He was always the first to defend anyone if no one else seemed willing to do so. “Our families had to give us up. Or why else would we be here?” His eyes searched the group, desperate for someone to confirm this for him.
“They might have fought for us, at least,” said Anson, as sullen as ever. He sat next to Rodgar with a deep-set frown on his face. Sometimes he supported Rodgar, other times he backed Audrey; generally, he followed whoever took the angriest view of things. “Like that Outlaw a few years ago.”
Audrey sighed. She had never learned the name of the boy who broke into the castle four years ago and cut down the wooden frame of Richard’s keep. If the Normans knew his name, they had successfully kept any slaves from discovering it. They said only that the boy had been exiled from Engla-lond for his crimes and and henceforth was known as the Outlaw. “The Outlaw is the reason Lord Richard wanted us to build the keep in stone so quickly,” she pointed out. She didn’t like speaking against the Outlaw; she admired him as much as anyone. Nonetheless, their lives had become doubly miserable ever since his visit. “He’s also the reason it’s so difficult for us to get our hands on weapons or do anything at all without permission.”
“If you want to spend the rest of your life as a slave here,” said Rodgar, “go on ahead, Audrey. We’ll be sorry to lose you, but it’s your decision. The rest of us are going to escape tomorrow.”
She had heard little bits and pieces of their plan. It would be a miracle if the entire hall hadn’t heard it. The boys would be carrying stones up and down the motte as usual. Lord Richard FitzScrob would be gone, as well as most of the usual knights, and only the son Osbern would be in charge. Rodgar planned to knock Osbern in the head with a rock and then escape down the western escarpment, where the drop was too steep for a wall and no one would see them from the other side of the motte.
“And then what?” she insisted. “Do you have a plan for what happens next? Where will you go? What will you do?”
“I don’t care. Anywhere’s better than here.”
The other boys nodded their heads in grim acknowledgment. Audrey resisted the urge to agree. She hadn’t seen enough of the outside world to know whether Rodgar was right. Maybe he knew better than she did. But what if he didn’t?
She shook her mess of blond hair and snapped at them as she turned to go, “Whatever you do, do it quietly, so I can get some fucking sleep.”
They obeyed, and after that, the hall became so silent that she could hear nothing but her own thoughts. But her thoughts proved worse than the boys’ loudest whispers, for she could not stop wondering whether Rodgar was right.
The next day, she stuck close to the group even though she knew she should not. Perhaps curiosity was to blame. Perhaps part of her wanted the option to escape with them when they made their move, even though she still planned to stay. Or perhaps her fondness for the boys she had worked alongside for so many years drove her to foolishly watch over them. Nonetheless, she stayed with them while they carried rocks up and down the motte, whispering discreetly to each other whenever they could, watching all the guards and waiting for their chance to escape.
As Audrey made her regular climb up and down the motte, she considered how far the castle had come since she first became a slave. She had watched these walls and buildings develop from the ground up. She had helped carve the spikes of the first palisades, then carried water to the masons who constructed the gatehouse. She had seen the wooden frame of the keep topple thanks to the Outlaw, and witnessed the dramatic transformation of the motte immediately afterwards. Lord Richard had demanded extra security around the motte consisting of another ditch and palisades. Then he focused the efforts of almost all of his laborers to the keep. The large tower now loomed two stories high, its eight buttresses stretching further into the sky for a third level. The stone walls were twelve feet thick at the bottom and decreasingly thinner as they stretched upward. Thus all the more stones to carry.
On some days, the slaves would stand in a line and pass the stones up to the laborers at the top of the keep. But today, with Lord Richard gone, work was not so organized. Slaves tried to get jobs in other areas, such as thatching roofs or tending animals—anything so they would not have to spend another day carrying rocks. Osbern FitzRichard didn’t seem to notice that the labor grew more disorganized as a result. All he seemed to care about was that the slaves were working, and he paid little heed as to what they worked on or why.
One way or another, Osbern seemed in a particularly grumpy mood that morning. The nineteen-year-old watched Audrey’s group from the shadows of the keep, holding a stick that he whacked intermittently against the wall. A few times, he whacked it against a laggard slave. His bad leg seemed to be bothering him, for whenever he walked he winced more than usual. But worst of all, he called several times upon the company of Audrey’s least favorite knight.
Sir Geoffrey had not spent much time at Richard’s castle until recently. Audrey suspected this had something to do with the fact his wife had born a child, according to gossip, and one might easily surmise that the man did not like babies. But many rumors abounded concerning the knight Geoffrey, and Audrey could not help but pay attention, for some of the rumors caused much concern. People said that whoever displeased the knight often “disappeared,” never to be seen or heard from again. Two slaves berated by Lord Richard for unruly behavior had in fact vanished from Richard’s castle in the last few years, both around the time Sir Geoffrey had come to visit. He had scraggly yellow hair that wisped around his gaunt face and golden eyes that reminded her of a cat on the prowl.
Eventually Audrey noticed Rodgar’s boys gathering near the west of the keep, where they would dare to escape down the highest, steepest ditch in the entire castle. Gimm carried a large sack on his shoulder. She wondered how the boy had enough possessions to make the bag sag with so much weight. Rodgar had not yet joined them, but the boys looked around as if expecting him to show up at any moment. Rodgar must be waiting for his chance to knock out Osbern with a stone. Did he know about Geoffrey?
Her heart in her throat, Audrey tried to make her way back to the two Normans lingering in the shade of the keep. She did not find Rodgar, but she remained anyway. She thought she might as well eavesdrop on the two men and see what they were up to.
“I am so bored,” Osbern said to the knight.
“Then find something that sustains your attention,” said Geoffrey, “and pursue it.” His voice had a slow, drawling quality that made Audrey’s hair stand on end.
“Father doesn’t want me to spar with anyone while he’s gone. I suppose he doesn’t want me to hurt someone on accident. But people should realize that’s just a risk of playing swords. And if it wasn’t, what would be the point?”
“I agree, Suzerain.”
A note of hopefulness entered Osbern’s voice. “Geoffrey, perhaps you and I could play something together. Do you like chess?”
“Oh.” Osbern’s disappointment was obvious, even to Audrey, who stood at a distance.
“Perhaps someone else could play with you, Suzerain.”
“I don’t think so.” Osbern whacked his stick against the wall loudly enough to make Audrey flinch. Nonetheless, she remained crouched around the corner of the keep, listening with helpless fascination.
After taking a moment to overcome his anger, Osbern spoke again. “What sort of things do you do with your friends, Geoffrey?”
“Friends?” Geoffrey’s normally monotonous voice now had an edge to it.
“Yes, well, you know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I do not, Suzerain.”
Audrey could not help herself. She crept closer. She wanted to see the looks on their faces. But as soon as she did, she noticed Geoffrey staring back at her.
Audrey’s stomach seemed to drop to her toes. Her legs wanted to melt and leave her in a helpless puddle. But she mustered all her courage and remained standing, staring back at him. She thought this was a good idea until she realized that the longer she stared at Geoffrey, the more intense his gaze became. So she switched her focus to Osbern.
“Forgive me, my lord.” She failed to hide the wavering of her voice. “I just wanted to know if … if … if you’d like some sort of refreshment.”
Osbern blinked with surprise. He had a strange face, rather large and bony in its features, but relatively proportionate. If his thick lips weren’t always frowning or his big eyes always glaring, he might actually look handsome. For one fleeting moment, his scowl dropped away and revealed that other side of him. “I … well … I suppose I could use some fresh water.” He came forward and handed her his horn. As Audrey took it, Osbern’s brown eyes sparked with the slightest hint of cheer. “What about you, Geoffrey?”
“I am well, thank you.”
Audrey bowed her head, but couldn’t help noticing that the knight’s eyes remained on her, unmoving.
She should have walked away. She should have let events play out as her friends ordained. But she could not stand by and do nothing while her friends got themselves killed—for now she felt certain that was exactly what would happen. Earlier, she had thought she might lure Geoffrey away from Osbern and thereby help her friends with their asinine mission. But now she wondered if the knight had already guessed that something was amiss. She felt as if he could see straight through her, from the quivering of her knees to the racing of her thoughts.
Her friends would get caught trying to escape today. She sensed it deep in her gut, as clearly as she might see a storm approaching on the horizon. If one of the knights like Sir Ralph or Sir Fulbert had been in charge today, the risk of a scuffle or arrow-wound might have been worth the reward. But with a man like Geoffrey on watch, her friends would pay with their lives. She knew enough about Geoffrey to predict that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill a single one of them. Or even worse, they might just “vanish,” and their families would spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to them.
She felt sick to her stomach. She didn’t want to betray her friends. But she wondered if a small treachery might save their lives, in the end. Any victory had been forfeited the moment Geoffrey looked at her and she stared back defiantly. Perhaps that was her fault. She had put him on the alert. So at least she might stop the worst from happening; perhaps she could stop her friends before they broke any rules at all.
Before she walked away, she willed herself to speak. “There’s a … a group of boys taking a break on the berm of the motte. They don’t mean any harm, you know. But I thought maybe you should tell them to get back to work, before they get too comfortable.”
Osbern looked back at her with a strange expression. He seemed once again on the verge of gratefulness, but he didn’t know how to express it. “Thank you, uh, for letting me know. As you should. Back to work, then.”
Audrey’s hands didn’t stop shaking until she had walked across the bailey to the nearest bucket of water and dipped Osbern’s horn in it. Even though she now stood on the other side of the bailey, far away from Osbern and his knight, she could still sense Geoffrey’s gaze on her like a cold wind snaking beneath her clothes. She hoped she had done the right thing. She hoped her friends would only have to pay for taking a long recess rather than attempting to run away.
Audrey started and turned to see Rodgar staring down at her. She took a deep breath of relief. If Rodgar was still here, he had not yet attempted to bash Osbern in the head. Which meant Osbern could break up the group before anything bad might happen. “Rodgar.” She straightened and turned to walk back to the motte.
“What’s that?” He stared with disgust at the finely polished horn in her hands.
“I’m getting water for Osbern.”
“Give it here. Let me piss in it.”
“Fuck off, Rodgar.”
He managed to grab the horn before she could dodge him. He spit a thick wad into the water. Audrey groaned with disgust. “What do you want from me?” she cried.
“I want you to escape with us. Please, Audrey. I know you’re scared of the world outside these walls. But it’s better than the hell in here, I promise you.”
“I never said I’m scared.” She stopped to glare at him, but the desperation in his eyes caught her by surprise. She wondered if she should tell him that it was already too late to escape. But the way his gaze searched for hope wrenched her heart.
“We could go to a new town, somewhere no one will find us. We can use the skills we’ve gained here to get jobs. Real jobs, where we’re paid real coin for our labor.” A pink wave suffused his cheeks. “You’re a girl. It might be even easier for you to find … something, if you really needed to.”
“You rotten fucking scoundrel!” She shoved him, hard enough to make him stagger. But he recovered all too quickly.
“I’m serious, Audrey. Our lives might be difficult. But at least they would be our lives.”
“And what would be the point of them?” Her own question surprised her. Lives were lives. They shouldn’t need to have a point. And yet as she considered why she asked it, she approached a disturbing revelation. So long as she stayed here, working on this castle, she knew that her life had a purpose. She knew her role in the world, however miserable. She knew that her labor contributed something greater than herself. And as much as she hated lugging stones, she knew that one day, this castle would be finished and that would partially be her doing.
And that’s why she hadn’t really wanted to escape.
Outside of Richard’s castle, what purpose would she serve? What role would she play? The task of surviving, and surviving alone, did not satisfy her. How could she explain that to Rodgar? How could she explain that until she found out what she would live for outside of this castle, she might as well stay here forever?
A loud yell from the top of the motte saved her from trying to explain herself. Audrey and Rodgar didn’t hesitate. They turned and ran towards the sound.
At the base of the keep, Audrey was initially relieved to find all the boys still standing near the berm. None of them had tried to escape yet. No severe punishments could be made. But her dismay returned when she saw Osbern struggling with Gimm, the one who had yelled, while Geoffrey stood nearby. The knight held the same sack in his hands that Audrey had seen slung over Gimm’s shoulder. Geoffrey reached in and pulled out a piece of bread, then a pouch of liquid.
“Food and spirits, Suzerain.” Geoffrey pulled out the stop of the pouch and sniffed its contents. “Some of our finest.”
Osbern roared with anger as he shoved Gimm into the dirt. Gimm landed on his stomach, his breath catching short as the wind was knocked out of him. Osbern pressed his knee into Gimm’s spine while struggling to hold Gimm’s thrashing arms.
“So you’re not just lazy,” snarled Osbern. “You’re a thief!” He struck Gimm in the back of the head. Gimm’s eyes glazed over slightly and his arms went limp.
Audrey’s heart sank. She had not realized that Gimm’s bag had been stuffed with stolen goods, but she should have deduced as much. The boys would need to feed themselves, and how else to do that but steal? The fact that Gimm had been the one to take the food was the saddest aspect of it all, for of course he would be the one to consider how everyone might go hungry once they escaped, and he would be bold enough to ensure their future comfort. In the end, his thoughtfulness and compassion condemned him.
Osbern put his hand on his knife, but his face twisted with uncertainty. He turned to look at Geoffrey. “What do you suggest I do with a thief, Geoffrey?”
Geoffrey stood very, very still. Only his chest moved, for he breathed somewhat heavily. Audrey could not read his expression at all. “Your father would want a trial. Is that what you want?”
“Those insufferable charades? I don’t think so.”
The slightest smile touched Geoffrey’s mouth. “Then take something from him, as he took something from you.”
Osbern’s eyes darkened. He unsheathed his knife. Then he stuck out one boot and pressed it against Gimm’s arm. The boy was still conscious, but he was dizzy and weak, his struggles half-hearted. He could not yet see that Osbern’s blade approached his fingers.
“My lord, please!” The words came out of Audrey’s mouth before she could stop them. She should have known better. Arguing against Osbern would only make him more determined. “You got the food back. Besides, he needs his fingers if he’s to work on the castle!”
Osbern hesitated. “That’s true.”
Gimm, who now realized the gravity of his predicament, increased his struggles. Osbern grabbed his hair and wrenched his head upwards, then spoke to Geoffrey. “Help me hold him.” As Geoffrey got into position, Osbern put his dagger against Gimm’s ear.
“Let this be a lesson to all of you,” he said, and then began sawing.
As Gimm’s screams split the air, Audrey wanted nothing more than to run away and hide. But she knew that would be wrong. She needed to be here with Gimm and suffer alongside him. Most importantly, she needed to accept the grim reality of her existence here. She and her friends were slaves. Nothing more. And even years of unpaid labor did not entitle them to a single sack of food.
Blood poured. Gimm’s face contorted with agony. Osbern’s jaw set with grim determination as he struggled to cut through flesh. But no image would linger in Audrey’s mind longer than the gaze of Geoffrey, whose eyes watched it all happen with a gleam of pure euphoria.
When it was over, Osbern tossed the ear over the edge of the berm. He withdrew and wiped sweat from his brow. Audrey noticed that his hands shook and a snarl of disgust lingered on his face. At the very least, he had not enjoyed Gimm’s punishment as much as Geoffrey. Obsern staggered over to Audrey, held out his bloody hand, and demanded, “Water.”
Somehow, Audrey had remained clutching Osbern’s horn this entire time, her fingers growing white around its ridges. She remembered how Rodgar had spat in it. Then she gladly handed it over.
“We’ll make our move on Saturn’s day, when Sir Ralph escorts us to the quarry.”
Audrey had joined the boys in their late-night huddle. Now that she’d taken charge, she had called them together much later in the night, when most of the other slaves were deeply asleep. She also forced everyone to speak in very low whispers. Rodgar had not even challenged her authority when she announced she had a plan. Ever since Osbern cut off Gimm’s ears several days ago, Rodgar rarely spoke at all. He seemed more traumatized by the event than Gimm himself. Perhaps he had told Gimm to steal the food, and thus considered the blame as his own.
Audrey had not confessed that it had all been her fault. She regretted what had happened that day, but she could not go back and change it. The only thing to do now was move forward. She understood now that Rodgar had been right. Any life was better than this one. Any role she might play would be better than serving the Normans. Normans like Osbern, however lonely, would never see her as more than a slave for their bidding. And they did not deserve to live in a castle built by her hands.
A small pile of stones on the motte had been stained by Gimm’s mutilation. Osbern used them in the construction anyway. This simple act had illustrated to Audrey that she could no longer take pride in her role as a laborer. Her work did not contribute to something great and magnificent. It enabled the creation of a monstrosity; a monstrosity that would further empower the Normans to terrorize their Anglo-Saxon neighbors.
“Sir Ralph is a nice man.” Gimm spoke so softly Audrey barely heard him. His eyes stared sadly into the single flickering candle. He reached up to scratch at the bandage around his head where his ear had once been, then thought better of it and lowered his hand. “I hate to do that to him.”
Audrey couldn’t believe Gimm still felt any sympathy for the Normans at all. But she understood the sentiment. “I know. That’s why it must be him. He’s the most likely to relax his guard. And his squire is an idiot. We’ll corner them both in the narrow gorge just before we reach the quarry. They’ll be carrying a decent load of food for the journey, and we’ll take it from them before we go.”
“What about the horses?” said Rodgar. “We could steal those, too.”
“We leave them. They’d make us easier to track, even if we escaped faster. There wouldn’t be enough for all of us, anyway.”
“Why not kill Ralph and his squire?” asked Anson from the shadows. “We’ll already be outlaws. We might as well go all the way.”
“Absolutely not!” Audrey leaned close to him, hissing against his sour expression. “It’s too risky to kill anyone. Tie them up, knock them out, perhaps. But not kill.” She drew back and regarded the rest of the group. “Besides, I’d rather we not think of ourselves as outlaws. We are escaping unjust captivity, which seems lawful enough to me, if King Edward would come to his senses. We are all of age and we deserve to swear fealty to the lords of our choice; not a foreigner who dragged us from home as children.”
Everyone considered the truth of her words.
“Until then,” said Audrey, “rest plenty and—most importantly—don’t do anything foolish. Act submissively. Pretend that what happened to Gimm scared you into obedience. Don’t show them your hope or your confidence, no matter how excited you may get. Save all that for Saturn’s day. Understand?”
“Very good. Now get to bed.”
As she shuffled back to her blankets, Audrey marveled at her own transformation. A few days ago she had tried to convince them all that escape was futile. Now she led the charge to freedom. She was glad none of them held this against her. The incident with Gimm nearly broke the boys’ resolve, but it had fiercely ignited Audrey’s. The group preferred following her lead to losing hope altogether.
She scowled as Rodgar shuffled onto the floor next to her. She recognized his voice, but could hardly see him as he groped through the darkness. His hands found the messy knot of her hair. She smacked his hand away. “You should be resting!”
She felt him as he stretched across the floor, his knees bumping hers, his breath tickling her nose. She wondered what on earth he was doing. She had no time to prepare herself when he moved even closer and latched his lips around hers.
She didn’t move at all—either due to shock, the fear that she might somehow make matters worse, or the conflicting emotions that told her that Rodgar’s kiss was both disgusting and pleasant all at the same time. Fortunately he didn’t move either, as if equally petrified, until at last he decided his lips had lingered long enough and released her.
“I sure hope that was an accident,” whispered Audrey, finding herself somewhat breathless.
“Audrey.” His hand groped awkwardly again, then found her shoulder and gripped it. “I am glad you changed your mind. I hope you know now that there will be something to look forward to, something to live for, once we get out of this place.”
“Yes.” Perhaps he meant something else entirely, but Audrey now understood what role she would serve once she escaped from these walls. “I am going to live for the day I see all of these fucking stones ripped out of this castle and put back in the earth where they belong.”
It should have been a good plan. It should have worked smoothly. Audrey thought she had foreseen everything.
But she had not foreseen the possibility that Sir Geoffrey would escort her group to the quarry that day instead of Sir Ralph.
She did not know why the switch happened. Was Ralph sick? Must he tend to something more important? Or did Geoffrey somehow know what Audrey’s group planned to do? Surely not. They had revealed nothing, given no sign. They provided every indication that the loss of Gimm’s ear taught them total submission. Geoffrey couldn’t possibly suspect that Audrey and the boys would try to escape today.
And yet there seemed no better explanation. Geoffrey rarely committed to such dull tasks as this one. Ralph didn’t mind them because traveling to and from the quarry with some of the laborers gave him a chance to socialize. Geoffrey had no such excuse.
Perhaps bad luck alone caused her plight; she certainly had enough of that in her life. But as the group left the castle and made its way through the fields with Geoffrey, two horses, and a wagon, she decided it did not matter. One way or another Geoffrey would be the man they must attack in order to escape today. Whatever the risk, they would do their best to overcome him. Now that Audrey had made up her mind to escape, she felt as if nothing in the world could stop her.
Nonetheless, she trembled almost the entire journey to the gorge where they would confront him. She took little comfort in the soft yellow sunshine, the tart spring breeze, or the fields of budding flowers. She could not even enjoy the opportunity to walk through fresh grass without carrying a burden in her arms. She could focus on nothing but Geoffrey, who walked silently beside his horse and wagon, staring stoically ahead.
Her efforts did at least yield some reward: by watching Geoffrey constantly, she noticed that he did not seem particularly alert today. His eyes sagged a little, and a few times he yawned. Could it be a ploy of some sort? Or was he actually as exhausted as he looked? Audrey remembered hearing that his wife had born a baby and wondered if the knight agreed to a dull trip to the quarry just so he could get away from his family duties. Unlike Sir Ralph, he did not bring a squire to accompany him. Unlike Ralph, Geoffrey actually deserved to get beaten and tied up on the side of the road. And in his current condition, he paid less attention to the slaves than Ralph would have. Perhaps this switch would work to their benefit.
She dared not give in to the temptation of hope until the moment Geoffrey held out his arm and told them all to “Stop.”
It was the first word he had spoken all day. Everyone stopped immediately, their breaths suspended in their throats.
Geoffrey pointed to a tree nearby. “We’ll rest over there.” He led the horses off the path and towards the tree.
Audrey’s hopefulness struggled with a bout of fear. This was most certainly strange. Normally Ralph did not rest until they reached the quarry itself. No one felt particularly tired. To rest now, while they could still enjoy the coolness of morning, seemed altogether wasteful. Was it a trap of some sort? A method of testing them?
She watched in disbelief as Geoffrey tethered the horse to a branch, sat against the tree trunk, and promptly fell asleep.
Audrey moved to a safe distance with Rodgar and stared at the knight from afar.
“God is with us today,” said Rodgar. “This is our chance to escape.”
“I don’t like it.” Audrey scowled fiercely in Geoffrey’s direction, just in case the knight watched them through cracked lids. “We should stick to the plan. I chose the gorge for a reason. No one would see us. Out here on the road …”
“We’ve seen only one other person this last mile! And we’re close to the woods, where we hoped to go anyway. Don’t be a fool again, Audrey. We are going to escape. And we are going to do it now.”
“Rodgar—” She reached out to catch his sleeve, but he wrenched free of her grip.
He was already beckoning to the other boys, pointing to the satchel of food on the horse’s saddle, and gathering what items he could. She didn’t know what to do. She felt dizzy. She wanted to escape just as fiercely as any of them. But this seemed all wrong.
Her stomach flipped when she saw Rodgar pick up a large stick from the grass and approach Geoffrey with it. Rodgar wound the stick back and aimed for Geoffrey’s head. She wanted to yell out at him, but that would only awaken Geoffrey. So she ran towards them.
She didn’t really have a plan. She didn’t know what she would do. She supposed it depended on how quickly she got there. If she reached them soon enough maybe she would stop Rodgar from delivering the blow. If she arrived too late for that, then maybe she would help him fight Geoffrey, for she strongly doubted that a blow to the head with a small tree branch would knock the man out.
But she arrived too late for either of those things. In his hastiness, Rodgar must have been too loud, or perhaps his foot nudged Geoffrey’s leg, or maybe—as Audrey had feared—the knight had never really been asleep at all. Whatever the reason, Geoffrey awoke.
He kicked Rodgar in the leg, then stood up and grabbed both his arms.
While the two of them struggled, Audrey dashed around them and flattened herself against the back of the tree. She knew that Rodgar would not defeat the fearsome knight. As she waited, she glimpsed the rest of her companions standing idly by and watching in a state of petrified terror.
She looked around the tree far enough to see Geoffrey holding Rodgar in a deadlock, a knife to his captive’s throat.
“Run if you wish,” said Geoffrey to the others. Even through the strain of the knight’s voice, Audrey detected a low thrum of pleasure. “I will not pursue you. I give you all your freedom, but at a price: the price of Rodgar’s life.”
Audrey’s heart sank. She wanted to believe it was a bluff, but somehow she knew that it was not. Geoffrey knew Rodgar’s name. He had been ready to make this offer. And he really did not care if they all ran away—not if he got Rodgar as a result. So was Rodgar all he wanted? Or did he get his thrill from playing this game and watching how the poor slaves reacted? Did he enjoy forcing them to weigh their freedom against the murder of their friend? Audrey didn’t know what Geoffrey wanted most, and she didn’t want to. All she knew was that this was a game to Geoffrey. And she refused to play by his rules.
Geoffrey looked around uncertainly. “Where is the girl?” he asked.
She reacted not a moment too soon. She reached out from behind the tree and grabbed the pommel of his sword. She pulled, and as he turned, she wrenched the blade free of its scabbard.
She wasn’t thinking clearly. Geoffrey could have easily killed Rodgar while Audrey struggled to steal the sword, and he still could now that she stood wielding the heavy weapon. But he did not, and perhaps she had sensed this, too. To slit Rodgar’s throat while one of his friends tried to rescue him would have ruined the game for Geoffrey. So he stayed his blade, clutching Rodgar close while staring at Audrey in a state of pure bewilderment.
Audrey knew nothing about sword-fighting. She wasn’t much taller than the blade itself. She probably looked like an idiot holding the thing before her. But she also spent most of her days carrying rocks. Her muscles were strong, her stance steady, and her voice much more fearless than she felt as she snarled, “Just go ahead and try.”
Geoffrey blinked a few times. His golden eyes looked her up and down. Then he did the most dreadful thing of all. He smiled.
“I’ve changed my mind,” said the knight. He lowered his knife and relaxed his guard on Rodgar. “I’ll take you.”
Geoffrey shoved Rodgar away, but as Rodgar stumbled forward, he cried out in pain. A streak of blood flitted through the air. Rodgar staggered away, clutching his bloody arm to his chest. He stared in awe at his wound just as she did. Geoffrey had slashed Rodgar’s wrist while releasing him.
Audrey’s heart flapped inside her chest. She had really gotten herself in trouble now. What could she expect to do against this madman? Even if she wielded a sword and he just a dagger, she probably could not best him. And even if she did, what would she do to him? Stab him? Kill him? She had told her friends they could not afford to kill anyone, and she had meant it. Then again, this was Geoffrey …
“Everyone, get out of here!” she cried. “Let me deal with this bastard.”
She must have been convincing enough for some of them, who wanted nothing more than to get away from Geoffrey. She glimpsed some of the boys running off, and of this she was glad. But she also noticed Rodgar standing nearby, either debilitated by his wound or unwilling to abandon her, and of this she was also glad. She did not think all the courage she possessed would be enough to help her face Sir Geoffrey alone.
The knight’s amber eyes blazed as he looked at her. A few times, his gaze flicked from his bloody knife and back to her again. This only seemed to make him more excited. “What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Go to hell,” she replied.
He moved towards her.
Her jab of the sword was awkward. She did not know what to do with it. But she knew she could stab him if she pushed hard enough, so push she did. He moved out of the way.
Geoffrey looked around to check on the state of her companions. Except for Rodgar, whose wrist bled profusely, the boys were escaping. His smug expression faltered. Perhaps he had not expected her companions to actually flee. If he’d had any sort of plan, it was crumbling before his eyes. “Call your friends back here,” he growled, “or I will hunt each of them down myself.”
“I don’t think so,” she snapped back at him. “I think you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. I think you knew we might try to flee today, but you thought you could restrain us all on your own. Now you realize we’re too strong for you; we’re willing to pay whatever price we must to get away from you and Richard’s fucking castle. And you don’t know what to do about it.”
Geoffrey moved closer, clenching his knife until his knuckles turned white. “I know what I will do,” he said. A sneer pulled at his lips. “It involves splitting your flesh with this blade.”
He made his move then, but it was not what she expected.
His dagger flashed; she shifted her stance in a desperate attempt to block. But the knife did not fly towards her. Instead, Geoffrey plunged it into Rodgar’s neck.
Audrey must have screamed then. Looking back later, she couldn’t really say. She knew that the horizon seemed to tilt and the whole world turned black. Geoffrey’s silhouette cast a shadow on the sun, his little sneer the only glint in the darkness. He shoved the knife deeper into Rodgar’s throat. Rodgar died before her, his blood staining the sky in spurts, his lifeless body collapsing to the earth in a heap. She did not realize until that moment how greatly he had inspired her to escape in the first place. She did not think anything of the awkward kiss they had shared until a stream of blood poured over his lips.
The light faded from his eyes, and he became nothing more than an empty corpse, staring up at her with an expression of eternal surprise.
She dropped the sword. She nearly collapsed next to him. She had been foolish to do any of this. She never should have agreed to escape from Richard’s castle. She never should have tried to put forth her own plan. She was a stupid slave, and always would be. She could not stand up to the Normans. And she certainly couldn’t stand up to Geoffrey.
“There there, ma jouet.” She felt his hands on her, cold and gripping. She felt his breath on her tears, sharp and icy. “Your death will not be so swift.”
She felt the wet blade tickling her skin. She heard a deep roar in her ears. And at last she reacted.
She tasted metallic blood on her tongue before she realized she had his forearm in her teeth, squeezing with all her might. She heard the clang of his knife as he dropped it—listened to him cry out with pain. As he fell, she reached down and picked up a stone from the earth. It was large, but she could lift it high and fling it hard—hard enough that once it collided with Geoffrey’s skull, he collapsed to the ground in a stupor.
Then she turned around and ran.
As she fled, she felt the grass lash her legs and the wind comb her hair. The shadows of the forest crept towards her, wrapping round her body like a demon’s embrace. She didn’t care what dark future awaited her anymore. Her anger filled her up and made her limbs thrum with energy. Geoffrey and all his Norman companions would pay for what they had done to her and her friends. And no matter how much they paid, it would not be enough. For if a slave’s labor could not be paid for in coin, then she would recollect her dues in blood.
The chronology of the Sons of Mercia series is as follows:
EADRIC THE GRASPER (Sons of Mercia Vol. 1)
GODRIC THE KINGSLAYER (Sons of Mercia Vol. 2)
Last Tales of Mercia
EDRIC THE WILD (Sons of Mercia Vol. 3)
One Last Tale of Mercia will every other Tuesday until the release of the novel, Edric the Wild (October 2, 2012). For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.
Releasing NEXT (September 4, 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.
Williams, Ann. The English and the Norman Conquest. Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1995.
A full list of sources is available in the bottom right column of this blog.