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.
When Sigurd glimpsed the Norman castle on the hill ahead of him, dismay filled his heart and brought him to a stop.
More of the castle had been turned into stone than the last time he’d seen it. Wooden palisades still covered a few sections, but rocks and mortar formed most of the curtain wall spreading out from the gatehouse. A tall stone keep sprouted out from the back of the motte and bailey formation, and though a few men still worked on the top level, the tower looked nearly complete. Sigurd knew that Lord Richard FitzScrob had faced plenty of setbacks since his arrival in Engla-lond, whether from his own tenants, Welsh raids, or that rambunctious Outlaw a few years ago. But if any foes decided to go against Lord Richard now, they would have a very hard time of it.
Sigurd wondered how fun it might be to live and work in a place like that.
Then he looked down at himself and considered how ridiculous he looked. For the first time in years, he had dressed in one of his favorite outfits from his days as a royal minstrel. His hose were red on one leg and yellow on the other. Flamboyant yellow embroidery flowed up the sleeves and seams of his red tunic. The clothes were a little loose on him, for he had lost a bit of weight since moving to Shrewsbury, even though he had little weight to lose to begin with. He hoped his tightened belt hid the sagging cloth well enough, but he couldn’t say for sure. Meanwhile he’d trimmed his beard down so that his golden hair surrounded only his lips and chin, leaving the sides of the jaw bare. He had covered his ear-length hair with a little green cap topped with a feather.
Two Norman soldiers walked past him on the road. They paused their conversation to turn and stare at him. They said something to each other in Norman and laughed uproariously. Sigurd understood the language, but purposefully kept himself from interpreting it. He didn’t need to, anyway. He knew the truth. He looked like an idiot, and he had been a fool to walk all the way from Shrewsbury with the hope that Lord Richard FitzScrob might hire him as a minstrel.
Once the soldiers passed, Sigurd tore off his cap and flung it into the road. Then he slung his little harp over his shoulder, turned around, and walked back the way he had come.
Who was he trying to fool? He was not a minstrel anymore. Sure, he could sing a few songs and tell plenty of naughty riddles. He could put up with a certain amount of humiliation for the sake of entertaining the audience. But there was more to being a gleeman than just a little song and dance, which most people did not realize. Being a minstrel for rich lords meant listening to their intimate conversations when he wasn’t putting on a show for them. It meant knowing a great deal about the local politics, and it meant that a lot of people would foolishly trust him with their secrets because they considered him unimportant. To the contrary, he might also have to provide counsel to those he served in their most desperate moments, for when they tired of listening to the drivel of their courtly peers, they would turn to the unassuming gleeman for advice.
Sigurd had experienced this with every lord he ever served. He knew more about King Canute and Lord Goodwin than he would ever tell anyone, even though both of them were now dead. The gleeman’s secret was that he acted like a fool and most people thought of him as such, but in actuality, he could endure degradation because he understood the gravity of his own existence.
At least, he once had. But he had also grown very weary of it. He despised the greed and blood-lust of most the lords he encountered. He hated holding secrets, particularly from people he cared about. And he tired of carrying the responsibility of knowledge. He had never wanted any of that. He had become a minstrel only for the sake of entertaining people. And he could no longer comfort himself with the notion that he was important, for he wasn’t. That would be the biggest joke of all. Once upon a time he listened in on King Canute’s most intimate conversations, but now he was no more than poor Saxon churl, living in the back country of rural Engla-lond.
“Excuse me. Is this yours?”
Sigurd turned with a start, wiping his eyes. To his embarrassment, a teardrop had begun to form on his lashes. But he discarded the evidence quickly and faced the stranger with a well-practiced smile.
His eyes took a moment to adjust to the brightness of the sun behind the stranger’s shoulder. Once they did, Sigurd’s smile shifted into an expression of surprise. The man walking towards him was exceptionally handsome. His chiseled features were simply stunning in their perfection, from the sharp edge of his nose to the flowing eyebrows over his dark hazel eyes. The square shape of his jaw accentuated the pink softness of his lips. He seemed impeccably clean and incredibly rich, from his bright blue linens to the embroidered saddle of the horse he led behind him. His yellow hair flowed in a swoop past his ears and shone like gold in the sunlight.
Sigurd realized that he had been staring for far too long and blinked in a desperate attempt to dispel the man’s image. He forced his attention onto the little green cap in the stranger’s hand.
“Oh, er, yes, I suppose it is.” Sigurd reached out and swiped the cap quickly, as if afraid their hands might touch. He dusted it off and stuffed it under his arm. Then he bowed low, mostly in an effort to hide from the man’s piercing gaze. Without thinking, he fell into his practiced gesture of twisting his legs dramatically and extending one arm with a flourish. “My thanks to you.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen a cap like that before.” The man spoke before Sigurd had a chance to escape.
“I imagine not. I had it uniquely made.”
“I see. Where are you from?”
Sigurd straightened enough to notice the man smiling. Did he find Sigurd funny, already? Sigurd did not like amusing people unintentionally. “Wiltshire, once upon a time,” the minstrel said sourly.
“Forgive me. I did not mean to pry. But you seem like an interesting man, and I could use some interesting conversation after my very dull visit with Lord Richard.”
“Oh?” Sigurd glanced back at the castle, wondering what business the two had with each other.
“Would you care to walk with me? We seem to be going the same direction.”
Sigurd did not feel particularly sociable, but he could not deny that he found this man intriguing, as well. And good company usually lifted his spirits. “Very well.”
They walked in silence for a time, watching the fields roll by on either side of them. The sun fell to their backs, casting long shadows in front of them. Sigurd wondered if he was crazy for thinking that even this man’s shadow looked handsome.
“I am Alfric Cild, of the Wenlock.”
“It is nice to meet you, Lord Alfric.” Sigurd struggled to hide his growing embarrassment, for he had heard of Lord Alfric, and he also knew that Lord Alfric was probably the richest thegn in Shropshire. “My name is Sigurd.”
Another silence threatened to stretch on, but Alfric wouldn’t let it. “What do you think of Richard’s castle?”
“It is not unimpressive. A true hearth-shield, one might say. Lord Richard is no hapless farmer.”
Alfric laughed, then glanced pointedly at the case on Sigurd’s back. “Are you a gleeman?”
“Of a sort.” Sigurd sighed. He might as well tell the truth. He refused to be like his friend Godric, who tried to keep his past locked in a chest where he could forget its existence. “I once roamed far and wide as a minstrel. But I confess, ever since I moved to Shrewsbury, I have found little use for my skills.”
“That is a shame.”
Sigurd shrugged. “I left that life for a reason. Plucking the strings of my harp is one thing; dancing on the strings of politics is quite another.”
“If that is true, why are you walking on the road with your harp?”
Sigurd could not conjure a graceful answer. The silence confirmed Lord Alfric’s doubt.
“If you are looking for work, I could certainly use a good gleeman,” Alfric continued.
Sigurd gulped, and once again answered with silence.
“Come to my manor at least once and let me see what you can do. I’ll reward you with good food and coin for your troubles.” The lord moved suddenly closer, his strong hand closing on Sigurd’s shoulder. “And don’t pretend you wouldn’t enjoy it.”
Flames rushed to Sigurd’s cheeks. What did Alfric mean by that? His body trembled and he was sure that Alfric noticed. But the lord just smiled, his hand brushing Sigurd’s face ever so slightly as he lifted it. “I will take no refusal. Come in a fortnight, on Woden’s day. I’ll have a feast prepared in your honor.” Alfric gave him directions, then climbed upon his horse.
“You won’t regret it, Sigurd.” With a lash of his reins, the lord was away, as swiftly as a passing dream.
Sigurd looked forward to visiting Lord Alfric. But as a lonely week passed, he began to wonder if he had imagined the whole encounter in a state of desperation. He could not believe that a lord as rich as Alfric would extend that invitation to such a poor churl as Sigurd had become. And if Sigurd had still possessed some dignity on the day he met Alfric, the last of it crumbled another week later.
One morning, he awoke to discover that his meager little orchard—his prime source of sustenance and trading over the last few years—had been infected by a host of little green bugs. They ate at the leaves and stems of his plants with little tubed mouths and caused the leaves to curl and wither. He had dealt with the bugs before, but never seen so many of them at once. No matter how many he caught and killed, more seemed to arise from the soil. He had searched his home frantically for some tool to help catch them, but only succeeded in making a mess.
Searching his cabin for something useful had proved to be an utterly futile and demoralizing task. When he moved to Shrewsbury many years ago, he had brought with him a great number of trinkets and souvenirs from his life as a royal minstrel. At the time he had treasured them, and thought they would impress anyone who saw them. He had glass vials of foreign spices, little carvings and statues of pagan gods, fine fabrics of intricate embroidery, candelabras, and all other sorts of useless possessions. For only when he had started living a humble life here in Shrewsbury, tending a garden and trying his hand at various crafts, did he realize that almost everything from his past livelihood was indeed useless here in this one.
None of his old trinkets from royal life would help him with a host of little green bugs.
By the end of the day he realized he had damaged some of the plants and the tender soil just by his desperate attempts to catch the insects, and that hardly compared to the deluge of destruction caused by the bugs themselves. He had made a mess of his home and a mess of himself. His clothes were filthy, his hands and face covered with soil. He had collapsed in bed that way after attempting to quell his bad temper with an unusual amount of mead.
When he awoke that morning, he could not find the will to get up until several hours later. He did not want to face his failure yet again. He did not want to spend another day searching the soil for bugs and then squashing them. He did not particularly want to do anything. And so he laid there, staring up at the turf roof of his cabin, which was also in need of repair.
Then someone knocked on his door.
Sigurd got up and moved towards it in a state of disbelief. Who could be visiting him at a time like this and why? In any case, it didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.
But when Sigurd opened the door and saw Godric grinning on the other side of it, he blanched. “Godric?”
The smile on Godric’s face faltered. Apparently, he had highly anticipated surprising Sigurd with a visit. Sigurd’s heart sank, for he saw Godric smile so rarely. When Godric smiled, his entire demeanor changed. He ceased to be a disgruntled warrior and looked like a younger man full of vigor and hope for the future. Each look suited him in his own way, but Sigurd cursed the fact he had carelessly ruined what should have been a wonderful moment.
“Have I come at a bad time?” asked Godric.
“Er, no. Well, I just …” Sigurd cleared his throat and glanced back into his cabin. Doing so only made him shut the door farther. “I just didn’t expect you. Why have you come?”
Godric looked around, shifting awkwardly on a feet. Sigurd cursed himself again. He just kept making the situation worse. Why did Godric have to make a surprise visit today of all days? “I, uh, just felt like seeing you. But I suppose I should go.”
“No, Godric, wait.”
Godric was already turning around. Sigurd reached out and grabbed his hand desperately. Godric looked up with surprise. Sigurd couldn’t tell whether he looked more pleased or annoyed. With Godric, who could ever say?
Sigurd released his hand. He realized his heart was pounding at a ridiculous pace. His mouth felt dry but he managed to form a few more words, nonetheless. “Listen, my home is a mess. Give me just a moment to clean up, won’t you?”
Godric hesitated, his eye peering curiously through the cracked door. Then he nodded.
With a breath of relief, Sigurd closed the door and turned to face the sad state of his cabin.
He tried his best to fold his fabrics and put them back in place, to stand up his figurines and straighten the precious pages of his personal poetry. Then he splashed his hands and face in a bowl of water, already dirty from the day before. He dressed in a relatively clean tunic and attempted to tame his short blond hair with his fingers. Most of all, he tried desperately to find his normal spirits amidst his suffocating mood of depression. He opened the window shutters and dusted off a candelabra to set on his table. Then he took a deep breath and returned to the door.
With a bright smile on his face, he swept open the door and said, “Do come in.”
Perhaps he overdid it. Godric frowned as he entered, his eye searching Sigurd’s home for some clue to Sigurd’s temperament as he made his way inside.
“Please, have a seat at my table! It’s so rare I get a friendly visit from you, Godric—other than your annual visit with Edric of course. I really am pleased you came. Can I give you something to eat or drink? I’m afraid I’m fresh out of my famous celery and cheese, but—”
Godric turned and stared at him. Sigurd gulped. Despite everything they had been through together, he could not help but be a little intimidated by the fierce blue eye of the Kingslayer when he was unhappy. “What’s going on, Sigurd?”
“Why were you so unhappy to see me? Have I done something wrong?”
Sigurd found Godric’s self-consciousness touching. But he shook his head. “Of course not. I admit, er, I was a little worried you might be coming to collect rent, and it seemed a little early for that. But otherwise …”
“Would that have been a problem? Are you low on money?”
“Well … well … well yes.” Sigurd hated to admit it. But he also felt a flare of anger deep in his gut, and for a moment he didn’t know why. “I will get you the rent, don’t you worry about that.”
“I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about you.”
“Oh really?” Sigurd gave him sardonic smile. “I don’t know whether to be flattered or embarrassed.”
“Sigurd …” Godric seemed to realize that he had done something to hurt Sigurd’s feelings, but he couldn’t figure out what. Even Sigurd didn’t know what, at first. Not until he stood there watching the concern distort Godric’s normally stalwart face and realized it came far too late.
“If you’re so worried about me, why don’t you visit more often?” Like many words today, the question seemed to burst unbidden from his mouth. But once it was out in the open, he decided not to regret it. He had waited too long to ask such a question. He had hoped too long for Godric to take some sort of initiative and his patience had been rewarded with nothing but disappointment. “I am going to ask you again, and I want you to answer more honestly. Why did you come to visit today?”
“I … I just felt like seeing you.”
“Why did you feel like seeing me?”
Godric’s face darkened. “Why does it matter?” A growl of anger encroached on his voice. For some reason, Sigurd was glad. He was glad he could arouse Godric to feel something. “I didn’t have many chores to do. Osgifu and Edric went to town on an errand. So … I was bored.”
“You were bored.” Sigurd laughed dryly.
“If you are lonely, then you should get a wife.”
Godric’s frown deepened. His fist clenched, bunching the muscles of his arm. “Anyway, you visit me all the time. I thought you wouldn’t mind if I visited you.”
Sigurd straightened and pushed back his hair with a flourish of his long fingers. “And you hoped that I might entertain you.”
“You’re not acting like yourself, Sigurd.” Godric gnashed his jaws. “I don’t know what you want from me.”
“I don’t know what I want from you either.” Sigurd sighed wearily, his sardonic grin waning. He did know what he wanted from Godric. He also knew he was foolish for thinking he might ever obtain it. “I don’t know what I must have expected, moving here with you.”
“Maybe … I can help.” The hope in Godric’s voice sounded forced. He also seemed desperate to hasten away from whatever confession Sigurd had been close to making. “If you’re having a problem with your garden, I might be able to fix it. Remember, I know a few things about gardening.”
“More than how to poison a man with a flower?” Sigurd regretted his sour attempt at humor as soon as he saw Godric’s face darken. “I’m sorry, you’re right. You probably can help. I don’t know why I didn’t say so as soon as you arrived,” he lied.
So they walked out to Sigurd’s garden, and Godric inspected the problem from every possible angle. To Sigurd’s surprise, he walked far past the orchard into the field to find the source of the bugs.
“Capsids,” said Godric, and pointed to some old logs and weeds in the field. “They often hatch out of sticks and hedges. We need to keep the field around your garden a bit cleaner.” Without further ado, Godric reached down and picked up one of the rotting logs and slung it over his shoulder. “We’ll burn this, if we can,” he said. “If there are still any eggs or babies inside, the fire will kill them. We’ll build a fire of all the debris we find near the garden. If I’m right, the smoke will also help agitate the bugs and bring them out in the open.” Then he walked off with the log in tow.
Sigurd scrambled to keep up with him, selecting a few smaller sticks to dispose of. After that they pulled out weeds and creeping hedges, which were also an attraction to the loathsome creatures.
Together they cleaned the field, then built a fire downwind of the orchard. Sigurd felt completely disgusting by then, for he had watched many of the little bugs—some of them red and brownish—scurry out of the wood and a few times onto his skin. Even after he had flapped his clothes violently, he still imagined them crawling all over his body.
Once the smoke drifted over the plants, more of the capsids flew and jumped about. Sigurd could hardly believe the thickness of the swarm that revealed itself.
“I suppose a lot of the eggs were on your plants themselves,” said Godric. “You might want to wash more of the stems during the winter to keep this from happening next time.”
Sigurd glowered. While he appreciated Godric’s help, he felt increasingly mortified by his own lack of knowledge about gardening. He had considered himself a decent gardener after a few years of scraping by successfully, but perhaps he had mostly gotten lucky. Godric, on the other hand, had been trained as a boy by monks in orchards much bigger than this one.
He saw Godric peeling off his tunic and throwing the cloth to the ground. Godric pulled out his ruby-hilted knife and held it with a firm grip before him. Delight gleamed in his eye as a sneer pulled up his lips. “Let’s kill those fucking capsids,” he snarled, and dashed forward.
“Don’t hurt my plants!” cried Sigurd, running after him.
Yesterday, he had felt disgusted and even guilty every time he crushed one of the bugs to death. With Godric, he couldn’t help but take delight in the chase. Every death of the little green capsids felt like a tiny victory. Through the haze of drifting smoke and the blurring swarm of insects, he imagined he was in the thick of a battle. And it was a great deal more fun than real battle might have been.
“Got you!” cried Godric, plunging his dagger into the soil before him. Sigurd turned to see whether Godric had actually managed to impale one of the bugs on his blade. Crouched and shirtless, his light brown hair scattered about his shoulders, Godric looked positively feral.
A moment later, a green bug flew from the soil and away from Godric’s dagger.
“What!” Godric was shocked. “I had the bastard!”
Unable to help himself, Sigurd burst out laughing.
“Something funny?” Godric snarled, revealing a flash of white teeth.
“Oh Godric, you know you can’t aim at anything to save your own life.”
For a moment, he worried he had hurt Godric’s feelings. Then the Kingslayer smiled and let out a chuckle despite himself. The two of them laughed freely into the bug-infested smoke.
Together they killed capsids and burned old logs until late in the afternoon. Then they realized that the sky had darkened more than they noticed from within the smoke and firelight. They stood by the dying embers of the fire and looked at the sad remains of Sigurd’s withered garden.
“I’m sorry if I damaged a few of your plants,” said Godric guiltily.
“Never mind.” Sigurd sighed and turned away from the sorry sight. “Let’s go inside and get you some food.”
Sigurd served a meager dinner of cabbage, carrots, and leek stew. He got out some fine wine he had been saving and hoped this helped make up for the meal’s blandness. He lit the candelabra in the middle of the table and briefly felt proud of his humble abode.
Godric was very hungry. He ate and drank quickly, as if he had forgotten about doing anything else. Sigurd watched him in a state of helpless fascination. It felt so strange to have Godric sitting alone at his table, eating his food and sharing Sigurd’s company—especially with no shirt on. It seemed very unreal, like something out of a dream, and Sigurd wanted to enjoy every moment of it. He appreciated Godric’s absorption in the meal, for that kept Godric from noticing Sigurd’s growing discomfort.
As Godric finished eating, Sigurd hastened to avoid an awkward silence, even though his own food sat unfinished. “You have dirt all over you,” Sigurd pointed out. “Let me wash some of it off.”
He stood and made his way over to a bucket of water. This was fresh water, saved for drinking, but Sigurd decided to use some of it anyway. It wouldn’t do to use dirty water on an occasion like this. He grabbed a bowl and a rag and made his way to Godric, afraid to look him in the eye. Godric sat very still, one hand gripping the edge of the table. He looked rather tense considering all the wine he had imbibed.
Sigurd dipped the rag in water and wrung it out. His hand trembled as he brought the wet rag to Godric’s neck. Perhaps he was being foolish. Perhaps he was going too far. But he also knew he would regret it later if he did not take advantage of such a rare chance as this one.
Godric flinched as the cold cloth touched his skin.
“Sorry,” murmured Sigurd. Then he resumed brushing the rag down Godric’s throat. Drops of water spilled from the rag and rolled down his chest, collecting dirt and leaving trails of clean rivulets. As Sigurd watched, he realized that Godric seemed to stop breathing. The rag had lingered far too long on Godric’s neck.
Godric reached up and grabbed Sigurd’s wrist. The rag fell from Sigurd’s hand and squelched against the floor. Godric stood and turned to face him. Sigurd winced from the tightness of his grip, but dared not pull away. He looked up and met Godric’s stare, even though doing so made his heart pound with terror. He wondered if he had ever seen Godric look at him so intently before.
“Sigurd, I …” Godric took a deep breath, his face distorting with uncertainty.
“I should go.” He released Sigurd’s hand and turned to gather his tunic. He faced away from Sigurd as he pulled it back over his shoulders.
“Godric, it’s dark out.” His disappointment fought with his anger. “If you didn’t intend to stay the night, why didn’t you go home sooner?”
“Sigurd. Don’t be a fool!”
The word cut Sigurd to his core. His breath stopped as Godric stormed from the cabin and slammed the door behind him. He crumbled to the floor and remained there, the wet rag cold against his fingers. He wondered if a fool was all he really was, and all he ever would be.
Lord Alfric possessed the nicest estate Sigurd had visited in a very long while. The town and surrounding fields of Wenlock were astonishingly beautiful, full of gnarled old trees that whispered in the breeze, bright purple flowers that glowed in the sunlight, and silvery limestone rocks that formed an escarpment along the road. On the lands of Alfric’s manor, long stretches of golden or green fields could be seen wherever one looked, save for a wild forest that flanked the buildings of the manor. Far in the distance one could spot the large hill called the Wrekin. Amidst such a long stretch of plains, the large hill looked somehow god-like, as if some important force of nature had put it there for a divine purpose. Sigurd smiled to himself, thinking of a story that might entertain Lord Alfric.
The manor itself boasted a lavish dining hall, full of beautiful tapestries, freshly strewn rushes, sparkling candelabras, and a sweet fire of burning cherry wood. Alfric had not been lying about a feast, either. Sigurd could not remember the last time he saw so much food on a table, save for his last visit to the Lundenburg palace. He tried to keep himself from drooling at the bowls of plums and cherries, platters of fowl and roasted pig, honeyed bread and even a bowl of salt. What further surprised him was that he and Alfric were the only two people around to eat it.
“I must admit,” said Sigurd. “When you said you would prepare a feast, I expected a lot more participants!”
Alfric smiled as he took a seat at the head of the table. He motioned for Sigurd to take the chair just next to him. “Now that would be foolish of me,” said the lord, “to hire a minstrel for a large audience when I had not yet seen his performance.”
Sigurd blushed self-consciously as he sat. He had not meant to sound presumptuous. But when he saw the kind smile on Alfric’s face, he realized the lord was just toying with him.
“Would you like me to play something now, my lord?”
“Please, no need for that yet. Have something to eat first.”
Sigurd gladly helped himself to the food, but grew impatient for his inevitable performance as a minstrel. In truth, he both feared and looked forward to it. He didn’t know whether he would be so out of practice that he’d make a fool of himself, or whether all of his old habits would come back to him naturally and make him feel like his old self again. More than anything, he just wanted to get it all over with.
He also felt rather intimidated by the largeness of the hall and its relative lack of activity. Save for one servant who walked in and out of the room to refill their goblets, not another person was in sight. The only sounds to be heard were the crackling of the fire and the chink of the two men’s dishware.
“Does your family live here with you?”
“My only family is my brothers, sisters, and ancestors,” said Alfric. “So … no.”
“I see.” Sigurd studied him curiously. “And you said you are of the Cild family. Should I take that to mean you are a relative of Eadric Streona?”
Alfric stiffened. Considering that Eadric Streona was remembered as the grandest traitor of the century, this could hardly be taken as a compliment. “He was my uncle. What of it?”
“Please, I will not hold it against you.” Sigurd laughed despite himself. “It so happens that my own dearest friend is the bastard son of Eadric Streona. Thegn Godric. I am surprised you two don’t know each other.”
“I know of him.” Alfric frowned. “I do not care for the rumors about him. I heard from Goodwin himself that Godric helped kill Harold Harefoot, so I know that much is true. A nasty business, all of it.”
“Yes, very nasty.” Sigurd could not help but be amused by Alfric’s reaction. The handsome lord had a perfect home, a pristine appearance, and a flawless array of food. No doubt he liked everything in his life to be nice and orderly. The way his lip curled at the thought of a murder made him somewhat less intimidating and a little bit adorable.
For the second time, Sigurd allowed himself to admire Alfric’s simultaneously masculine and beautiful appearance. He wore a tunic that opened low beneath his neck, revealing a soft flush of golden hairs across his chest. The short sleeves allowed a generous view of his arms, sloping from his broad shoulders to the table. Unlike Godric, this man’s skin was pure and free of imperfections such as scars. His muscles were softer, elegantly curved from his forearms to his hands. He had exceptional hands, thick and robust, the sharp edges decorated with flowing veins as if with fine embroidery.
Sigurd looked back up and noticed Alfric staring back at him. The knowing smile he returned sent Sigurd’s heart fluttering.
“I, uh … I wonder if you’ve heard the story of the Wrekin?” asked Sigurd quickly. “That lovely hill, just beyond your doorstep?”
“Well, I suppose I haven’t heard your version of it.” Alfric bit down on a juicy cherry.
“Then I must certainly enlighten you,” said Sigurd. “For you may not know this, but in Wales, amongst the towering mountains and jagged cliffs, there lives a particularly mean race of giants.”
“Oh does there?” Alfric leaned back in his chair and folded his hands before him, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
“There does indeed,” said Sigurd. “The reeve of Shrewsbury many years ago did not know about the giants of Wales, either. This reeve was a greedy man who seized lands and riches wherever he could, and when he ran out of opportunities in his local country, he decided to venture into Wales for some plundering.”
“Sounds a bit like my own uncle, Eadric Streona,” chuckled Alfric.
“Certainly, the two were not unlike. In fact, I wonder if this reeve was one of Eadric’s own ancestors. In any case, the reeve ventured far enough into Wales that he ran into one of the great mountain giants. The giant guarded a great treasure, but while he was sleeping, the reeve of Shrewsbury stole away with it! When the giant awoke he was furious. He chased the reeve and his men a short way but lost track of them in the thick of the forests. For a time he was despondent and didn’t know what to do without his treasure. So the giant turned to vengeance as a cure for his sadness. He took a great shovel and scooped out a big pile of earth with it. Then he made for Shrewsbury. He knew that Shrewsbury depended on the River Severn for its water, so the giant planned to dump the earth into the river and dam it up forever.
“Unfortunately for the giant, the path to Shrewsbury was longer than he expected. He felt very exhausted by the time he reached the lands of Wellington just near here. Out of breath, he asked a local blacksmith, ‘How far to Shrewsbury?’ The blacksmith could see that the giant meant trouble, and he worried what the giant would do once he got there. Even though Shrewsbury was not so far away, the blacksmith replied, ‘You’ve days and days to go yet!’
“So the giant let out a cry of rage and dumped the earth onto the plains just before him. Then he turned around and stormed back home. This pile of earth became the known as the Wrekin, and there it has remained ever since.”
Alfric grinned from ear to ear and dabbed his lips with a cloth. “If only I had known I lived next to a giant’s own dirt-heap. I would be charging my tenants higher rent!”
Alfric’s pleasure made Sigurd’s heart swell with satisfaction. He had pieced his own version of the story together on the spot, having heard various Northmen speak of the hill in such a fashion. Maybe he had not lost his talents, after all. “Perhaps my lord would like to hear a song as he finishes his meal?”
“Very well.” Alfric leaned forward to take a slow sip of wine. “Play me something, Sigurd.”
Sigurd happily complied, getting up from the table and taking hold of his harp. He set the small instrument against his shoulder and considered what to play.
“Something romantic,” said Alfric.
Sigurd’s cheeks warmed, but he could not resist a small smile as his fingers plucked the first string.
Playing the tune brought him bittersweet memories. Perhaps he only considered the song romantic because he had played it while on a journey south with Godric. Godric had been very happy at the time, perhaps as happy as Sigurd had ever seen him—other than when he was with his Osgifu. Godric had been on his way to visit Canute’s deathbed, and little filled him with more joy than that. Sigurd remembered one particular night when Sigurd had played this song in an inn and Godric sat watching from a table. There had been something in Godric’s eye that night, a depth of affection Sigurd had never seen there before.
Later on, as they lay in their beds, Godric had asked, “Don’t you hope to find a woman and settle down sometime, Sigurd?”
“Oh, I’ve found a few good women.” He had hesitated, his heart hammering against his ribs. He thought Godric would not have asked that question without a reason. “And a few men as well, I might add. More of the latter … in fact.”
Godric had not risen to the bait; in fact he had said nothing at all. Sigurd should have known he would not. Godric could be such a blind damn fool. He would not even let himself think of the possibility that he might ever find solace in—
A string of his harp twanged as he felt something brush the back of his arm. In the midst of his reverie, he had failed to notice Alfric’s approach. Alfric’s hands gripped his arms, then worked their way down to the harp.
Sigurd’s fingers froze over the shivering strings. Alfric took another step forward, closing the distance between them, his chest pressing against Sigurd’s back. Then he pried the harp from Sigurd’s hands and set it down on the table.
“You play very well.” Alfric’s whisper tickled the skin of Sigurd’s neck. “But you know that’s not the only reason I asked you here.”
Alfric’s arms closed around him. His lips brushed the side of Sigurd’s chin. Sigurd did not know how to react, at first. It had been such a long time since anyone showed him such affection. The truth was that he hungered for it more than he cared to admit. He wanted to melt into Alfric’s arms then and there. He practically did. But he found the strength to turn around and meet the lord’s gaze, all while tasting his tantalizing breath against his lips.
Had he intended to say something? He could no longer remember. In any case, Alfric did not give him a chance to speak. Alfric leaned forward and kissed him, his strong hands wrapping round Sigurd’s back, his thigh pressing between Sigurd’s legs. Sigurd’s head spun. He felt incredible. He felt as if he could float up from the earth and into the sky. And yet …
“Is something wrong?” Alfric pulled back, leaving Sigurd wanting more. But while the rich lord embraced him, Sigurd had remained very still, offering little response. His eyes lowered with shame. “Is there someone else?” Alfric pressed.
“No. Well …” Sigurd shook his head with frustration. “This is just happening a bit fast.”
“Forgive me.” To Sigurd’s surprise and regret, Alfric withdrew and turned away. “I must seem rather forward. But I have been … alone, for quite awhile.”
“I understand.” Sigurd blushed again, his cheeks practically stinging with heat. “All the more reason to take this slowly.” His fingers played with the edge of Alfric’s tunic. “Though I admit I’m tempted not to.”
Alfric smiled and pressed forward again. “You have nothing to fear.”
“Please.” With great reluctance, Sigurd pushed him back. “Not yet.”
Alfric sighed and pulled away from him completely. He took a moment to straighten his tunic and brush back his hair. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.” Then he handed over a small pouch of coins. As Sigurd took them, Alfric winked. “But I am intrigued by your performance. Until next time, minstrel.”
“Yes,” said Sigurd. “Indeed.”
He didn’t know what he would say. God forbid he do anything more stupid than he already had. But Sigurd needed to find some manner of closure for his feelings, however he might obtain it.
So here he stood on Godric’s doorstep, delaying the moment he must knock on the door.
Sigurd gave a start of surprise, then turned with a gladdened heart to see Edric coming towards him. Godric’s son was growing faster than Sigurd could believe. At fifteen years of age, the boy had developed a slender but wiry figure and a head of thick, cherry-red hair. Even as a teenager, the boy had not lost his brazen cheerfulness. Sigurd was also glad Edric had not dropped his childhood habit of calling Sigurd ‘Uncle’ even though they weren’t related. Without any hesitation, he fell upon Sigurd with a breath-wrenching hug.
“Oh!” Sigurd marveled at the boy’s strength as he struggled to hug him back. “Hello, Edric.”
Edric pulled back, his face beaming with delight. “You’ve come at a good time, Uncle Sig. I went hunting yesterday and killed two fat pheasants—while they were flying! We’re having some for the night meal, and we have plenty to spare.”
“Thank you, Edric. You must be very good with a bow. But actually, I came to see Godric. I need to give him my rent.”
Edric frowned. “Rent was due last week.”
“Yes, well—funny thing—your father never came by to collect it.”
“Oh.” Edric scratched at his red curls, then shifted anxiously on his feet. “Listen, Sig, maybe you should just leave it here with me. Father’s been in … one of his moods. For quite a few days now.”
“I see.” Sigurd’s stomach churned nervously. He mustn’t back down now. “I can handle him, Edric. I’ve seen him at his worst, I assure you.”
“Very well.” Edric motioned to the other side of the dining hall. “He’s out back. Chopping wood.”
Sigurd nodded and reluctantly made his way onward.
He found Godric swinging his axe into a very large log, next to a pile that already looked large enough to get several families through the winter. Sigurd approached slowly, hoping that Godric still had extra-sharp hearing, for he did not particularly feel like announcing himself. He stood and waited for a long while, wresting his pouch of coins between his hands, hoping to make some extra noise in any way possible.
Godric finally stopped, breathing heavily and refusing to turn around. “What do you want, Edric?”
“Godric, it’s me.”
Godric stiffened but remained facing away, his grip tightening on his axe.
“I’ve, er, brought the rent. I also brought you some celery from my garden. It’s still in poor shape, but I managed to rummage a few—”
Godric threw down his axe and turned around. He advanced on Sigurd so hastily that the minstrel nearly fled in terror. Even if he had chosen to, he would not have had the chance, for Godric took hold of his tunic with an iron grip and wrenched him closer.
The Kingslayer was not wearing his eyepatch. Sigurd tried not to blanch at the sight of the right socket of Godric’s face, a gaping pit of scars and folded flesh. He knew Godric all too well. He knew that a reaction of disgust was exactly what Godric wanted. It would continue to feed Godric’s anger. And so long as he felt anger, he was protected from feeling anything else.
“You’ve got balls coming to me with rent,” snarled Godric, “when everyone knows you’ve gone to another lord with your loyalty.”
“Everyone knows?” Sigurd felt himself growing paler. “I suppose word gets around about a man like Alfric. It’s true that I have become his minstrel. But I have no plans yet of moving, or anything like—”
Godric shook him so hard his teeth rattled. “Don’t lie to me.”
“Get your hands off me!” With more strength than he knew he possessed, Sigurd wrenched free of Godric’s grip. Godric reached after him, but after a small struggle Sigurd broke free once more and staggered a few steps away. To his own surprise, he had drawn his dagger in the midst of the scuffle, and now held it out before him. His heart was pounding with unusual ferocity, his breath ragged. “You’ll not touch me like that again, Godric, or you’ll very well regret it.”
The anger on Godric’s face cracked, revealing the hurt and betrayal underneath. “Sigurd …”
“What do you care who I am to Lord Alfric? I will keep paying you rent until I choose to do otherwise. I will take up whatever occupation I like in the meantime.”
“I thought you liked gardening.”
Sigurd almost wanted to laugh, but the desperation in Godric’s voice made him too sad. “I only chose gardening because I knew you could help me with it. But I’m not a gardener, Godric. And I’m not a simple churl who lives just to pay his rent. I need more than that in my life. Perhaps I thought that so long as I followed you …” His voice cracked. “Perhaps I believed that wherever you might be, I would find enough excitement to keep me happy. But I was wrong about that. And I was wrong to expect … so much of you.”
Godric looked down, but he failed to hide the sorrow in his gaze. Sigurd lowered his dagger. The emotion wrenching Godric’s voice surprised him. “I’m sorry, Sigurd.”
Godric stepped forward, then hesitated, looking at Sigurd’s knife. Hands trembling, Sigurd sheathed it.
Slowly, Godric opened his arms and wrapped Sigurd inside them.
For awhile, Sigurd was afraid to move. He wanted to relish the feeling of Godric holding him—no violence in his arms, no spite in his grip—and he feared doing something to ruin it. He breathed deeply of Godric’s scent, then leaned further against him, tentatively embracing him back.
“I’m sorry,” Godric repeated.
“Oh …” Sigurd to blink back the prick of tears against his eyes. He didn’t know if they were tears of joy or regret. “I forgive you, Kingslayer.”
Godric released him and withdrew, still unable to look at him.
Sigurd laughed sadly, glad Godric could not see the state of his own expression. “I hope this means you’ll still surprise me with a visit every once in awhile.”
Godric shifted uncertainly, then dared look back up. The slightest smirk lifted his lips. “If you have bugs—or anything else—in need of killing, you just let me know.”
“Oh, I hope not.” Sigurd handed over his pouch of rent, and as Godric reached for it, Sigurd clasped his hand firmly. “I hope not.”
Then the both of them laughed, and Sigurd decided that all the disappointment of the last few years had been worth it, after all.
Releasing NEXT (September 18, 2012)—
the novel concluding the Sons of Mercia series,
releases October 2, 2012
This story is a work of fiction strongly inspired by real events. It is a creative interpretation of what might have and could have been, not necessarily what was.
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.
For a long list of characters and their histories, visit http://www.jaydenwoods.com/Characters.html
A full list of sources is available on the bottom right column of this blog.