Last Tales of Mercia 10: Osbern the Son

Here is the final installment of the Last Tales! Only two more weeks until the release of Edric the Wild!

The keep of the Norman castle is finally finished. But when Osbern cannot convince the Saxon Edric to attend the celebration, his own resentment surfaces.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

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SHROPSHIRE

1058 A.D.

The stone keep of Richard’s castle was finished, and Richard planned a great feast in honor of its construction.

Osbern could not remember ever feeling as excited about anything as he felt about the upcoming feast. At last, he would be able to invite people to his home and allow them to enjoy the comforts of the castle. Everyone would witness his father’s achievement and celebrate its glory alongside him. Perhaps they would finally appreciate the greatness of his Norman heritage and realize that it deserved respect. Even the Saxon slaves could bask in their accomplishment and find respite now that they’d finished their work.

And yet as he rode through the town of Shrewsbury, he had a great deal of trouble getting other people excited.

“Free food for all of you!” he cried until his voice became hoarse. “Come to Richard’s castle on Sun’s day after church to celebrate its completion. Who will be there?”

The people of the streets responded with silence. Most did not even look at him. The few that did had frowns on their faces and looked away quickly.

This should have been a thriving market day, full of baskets of fish, bowls of vegetables, the flash of coins, and fresh honeyed bread. Here on the slopes of Shrewsbury, only a few buildings away from the towering stronghold, should have been the busiest spot of all. Osbern had expected to smell a dozen flavors of food and flowers, hopefully overpowering the stench of cow shit and fresh wool. He had thought he might even be able to hear the minstrel who sometimes roamed these parts—what was his name? Sigurd? In any case, Osbern had looked forward to this ride across Shropshire with Ralph, and especially to the town of Shrewsbury. Osbern truly enjoyed Shrewsbury on days such as this. He liked celebrating the fruits of anyone’s labor. Hard work deserved respect.

But the longer he and Ralph remained in the town streets, the emptier they became.

Contrary to common opinion, Osbern generally liked watching the Anglo-Saxon people in the midst of their normal lives. Sometimes he found their ways foolish, that was true. But he had learned to be patient with their slow realization of Norman wisdom. Based on the stories his father told him, he felt amazed that a country plagued for centuries by Vikings and only recently freed from the reign of a Viking king could go on pretending from day to day that war was a far and distant thing. The Saxons lived generally peaceful lives, more concerned with tending their fields or shearing their sheep than protecting themselves from the threat of battle. And yet Osbern knew that they could prove fearsome in some situations. The dichotomy fascinated him.

They could go on pretending that the threat of warfare did not hang over them. But when reality proved otherwise, they would all learn to appreciate Richard’s castle—whether by standing inside its walls or outside of them.

“Free food!” he cried. “Free food for anyone who—”

“Osbern.”

Twisting his horse’s reins, Osbern turned to see a familiar young man standing nearby. The fifteen-year-old stood with his arms crossed next to a cart full of logs. But that did not give him away so much as his head of thick red curls. “Edric Godricson.”

“The food isn’t free if people have to go to your castle and grovel at your feet for it.”

Osbern inhaled sharply. His horse stirred beneath him as his muscles clenched with anger. He reached down to steady the mare with his hand and perhaps draw from her strength. “I disagree. They should be honored by the opportunity to roam through the castle as guests.”

“Even though their children built it for you?”

“It was their duty.” Osbern gnashed his teeth with anger. He had hoped Edric of all people might wish to attend the feast. Edric had visited Richard’s castle on a few occasions. When Osbern first gave him the tour many years ago, he had looked impressed. He had returned a few more times with his father, Godric, who came to see Lord Richard. Richard and Godric liked to meet privately; Osbern suspected that Godric gave Richard some sort of military advice. In the meantime, Osbern had been forced to spend time with Edric. But he had not fully resented the experience.

Ralph nudged his horse forward, sensing his lord’s inner turmoil. “Hey Edric,” he said. “You may have more fun than you think. I expect to see a few pretty ladies there.” He winked.

This seemed to get Edric’s attention.

Irritated by Ralph’s jocularity, Osbern grunted and climbed off his horse. He preferred being on his horse’s back to his own feet, but somehow he felt it important to speak to Edric on ground level—even if he still towered a little over the Saxon. The mare snorted as Osbern pulled her after him, loping slightly on his crooked foot.

“Listen, Edric. I …” Osbern stopped just in front of Edric and looked down at him. Edric did not have a particularly intimidating demeanor. He still had somewhat childish features and a much smaller build than Osbern. But his eyes blazed back at Osbern with a dismantling ferocity. Osbern wilted slightly and lowered his voice. “I thought you enjoyed visiting the castle. And now that the keep is finished, it is truly magnificent. You should see it.”

“I pretended to enjoy it,” said Edric, “so that when you weren’t paying attention I could slip some coins to your slaves.”

“You … what? Why would you do that?” Osbern snorted. “Foolish boy. Those workers are beneath the likes of you and me. In any case, most of them are free now, and they can cease to concern you.”

“Free? They live in fear of you and your ‘magnificent’ castle. You can’t even pay them to come to your feast. Is that why you rode all the way to Shrewsbury? You know you’ll have to search far and wide for attendants.”

“Now listen here, you ignorant—” He was already reaching for Edric and grabbing his tunic before he had thought it all through.

Fortunately, Ralph remained nearby and must have seen this coming. He interjected sharply. “My lord, I think we’re wasting our time here. No need to waste more of it.”

Osbern held Edric by the hem of his tunic, breathing heavily with anger. He felt further confounded by the fact that rather than being scared, Edric looked vaguely satisfied.

“Go on then,” said Edric. “Why use just your hands? There must be a reason you always carry a sword on your hip. If you’re going to be a bully you might as well play the role properly.”

“Play the role properly …?” The words disturbed him in a way he could not explain. He released Edric, shrinking back towards his horse. He grabbed her saddle for support, finding himself dizzy.

“Osbern?” said Ralph. “Are you well?”

A surge of anger brought Osbern back to his senses. “I’m your lord,” he snarled. “And I am well enough. But you are right. We are certainly wasting our time here.” He sent a last glare in Edric’s direction as he climbed back up his horse. “I’m glad you’re not coming, imbécile.”

He lashed his horse more fiercely than he’d intended and hurried out of Shrewsbury.

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Osbern returned to the castle late that night and realized he no longer felt excited about the feast. He walked up the barbican to the keep, then through the darkness of the first level to the flickering torches of the second. He did not feel as proud of his home as he wanted to. It did not even feel much like home.

His father had gone to bed early, probably because his ankles had been bothering him of late. Osbern felt reluctant to go to his own bed. The profound silence of his chambers required some adjustment. Sometimes he actually missed the sounds of slaves or rowdy guards outside the flimsy wooden walls of his previous chambers, even though he had complained of them at the time. The silence of the keep could somehow seem deafening.

He found Sir Geoffrey sitting in the dining hall next to an empty goblet and a pitcher of wine. Osbern rarely saw the knight drink. Then again, Geoffrey only seemed to be glaring at the wine rather than touching it.

Osbern sat further down the table and took some stale bread from a bowl. He ate it quickly, then shifted in his seat, wondering what to do next.

“Sit still,” snapped Geoffrey.

Osbern jerked with surprise. He might have reprimanded Geoffrey for taking that tone if his heart wasn’t pounding so quickly with fear.

“Please, Suzerain,” the knight added absently.

Osbern gulped, wondering what thoughts ran through the older man’s mind. Geoffrey had not been himself ever since five slaves escaped under his watch, the sixth having died at Geoffrey’s hand. It was unlike the hawk-eyed knight to make such a clumsy mistake. Lord Richard had been furious with him and strictly limited his duties ever since. Fortunately for Geoffrey, the keep had nearly been finished anyway, and the slaves would have been freed by now. The punishment was not as harsh as it could have been.

“Why did it happen?” Osbern asked suddenly.

The knight’s pale eyes blinked with surprise. “Excuse me?”

“Why did the slaves escape?”

A slight snarl pulled at Geoffrey’s lips. The expression on Geoffrey’s face might have made Osbern flee in terror if he didn’t already feel so hopeless. Why not see what happened when he got Geoffrey riled? There was nothing else to do in this God-forsaken place.

“You must have let them get away with it,” Osbern pressed. “Or something must have gone terribly wrong. So why did it happen?”

Geoffrey stood up. Osbern’s stomach rolled inside of him. Geoffrey could kill him right here and now and no one would be around to stop him. After all, who knew what this knight would do lately? But Geoffrey only turned to pour himself a goblet of wine.

The knight sniffed the liquor carefully. Then he brought it to his lips and sipped. A calm settled over him as he swallowed the sweet liquid. His eyes peered through his yellow bangs into the shadows of the hall, as if into another time and place.

“Do you feel as if you have any control over what happens to you in this life, Suzerain?”

The question caught Osbern by such surprise that he needed a long time to think about it. Even then, the best response he could muster was, “Somewhat.”

“‘Somewhat.’” Geoffrey sneered at him, but part of the expression looked like a genuine smile. “You surprise me, Osbern. I thought that you of all people would say ‘yes.’”

Osbern decided to overlook the fact that Geoffrey had called him by name. Doing so might ruin this otherwise interesting moment. Osbern found himself looking the knight in the eyes and confessing, “I never chose to move to Engla-lond.”

His own bluntness astounded him. What if his father walked in right now? What if he had heard the resentment in Osbern’s voice? For once Osbern didn’t care. Let the ugly truth release itself.

“I didn’t even choose to build this fucking castle,” grumbled Osbern. “So why would I believe I had much control over my life?”

“Because you act as if you do every day.” Geoffrey’s eyes seemed to pierce him with their intensity. The knight leaned slightly closer. “You issue commands. You cling to your sword. You wish desperately to discover that one of your actions has achieved the desired response. Yet again and again you fail.”

“Careful, knight.” Osbern felt himself trembling slightly, and he prayed that Geoffrey did not notice. “What happens to us is God’s will, in the end.”

Geoffrey set down his goblet, still nearly brimming. “Cling to what illusions you’d like.” He wiped his lips with the tips of his fingers, and looked directly out the window. Osbern thought the sun must blaze straight into Geoffrey’s eyes, but the knight did not flinch. “There is no control. No real certainties. We shouldn’t even be here. God raped the sky and we appeared. So now He is trying to kill us.”

A long silence must have passed after that. Osbern didn’t really know. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think. Only stare at Geoffrey in shocked silence.

Geoffrey finally turned to look at him, his eyes still gleaming with the glow of the sun. Then he gave a low chuckle.

Osbern shook his head and finally returned to his senses, realizing he must look like a dullard. “How long did it take you to come up with that nonsense?” he sputtered.

Geoffrey just kept chuckling.

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In the darkness, Osbern heard slurps, groans, and whispers. He struggled to breathe through the thick stench of filth and decay.

“Play the role properly.”

Play the role properly …

A gleam of light against mud revealed a shape coming towards him. It arose from a swamp of moaning corpses. Nonetheless, as it stepped forward, the sludge ran off its fur and faded into the marsh. A coat of silvery hairs shifted like small blades in the moonlight. A soft snarl rumbled through the shadows.

Osbern watched, breathless, as black lips pulled back to reveal rows of jagged teeth. Stinking breath poured over him as he looked into the eyes of the wolf.

Osbern screamed.

He awoke gasping in the dark, still trying to recover his breath. Sweat poured down his face and neck. His blankets were soaked. He climbed out of bed and staggered to the small aperture in the wall to inhale the night breeze.

No matter how deeply he breathed, he could not rid his nose of the stench of the swamp, nor stop hearing the snarl of the wolf.

*

On the day of the feast, Osbern stayed in his room.

He dressed in a clean tunic dyed of deep midnight blue and embroidered with golden thread. He combed the top of his head, even though there was not much hair to subdue, and splashed his face with water. He wore his finest studded belt and laid out his favorite mantle to drape over his shoulders if the evening got cool enough. But none of that mattered. He could not bring himself to get up and face the disappointment that would await him outside. Fully dressed, he lay on his bed and covered himself with blankets.

He could see some of the bailey grounds from the small opening of his window. He knew that the only people arriving were rich thegns who wanted to make friends with Richard or desperate peasants who hoped to take a large amount of the food. He didn’t care to mingle with either sort. Most people of importance he had already met. The rest could come and go as they pleased. He would let his father deal with them. Osbern had already done his part riding all around the shire and inviting people. It was his father’s fault none of them wanted to come. So his father could deal with the consequences.

At some point in the afternoon, his door shook with a brusque knock. From his bed, he grumbled, “Come in.”

To his surprise, Geoffrey stood in the doorway. “Lord Richard requires your presence in the hall.”

“Tell him I’m not feeling well.”

Geoffrey just stared back at him, not moving.

“I’m not feeling well!” It was actually true, though his mood was more of an issue than any physical ailment. He didn’t care to explain that.

“Suzerain.” A mixture of irritation and sympathy tinged Geoffrey’s voice. “He will not accept your absence.”

“Geoffrey.” Osbern met the knight’s flat stare without flinching. “I’m staying in my room.”

“Very well.” The knight turned and walked away, leaving the door cracked open.

Osbern didn’t bother to close it. He couldn’t explain what had come over him, but he could not dismiss it, either. A deep fury burned within him, one he had ignored until now. He did not know where it came from nor what he might do if he allowed himself to embrace it. An aching anxiety rode beneath it, making his muscles clench and his heart pound fiercely. Nothing seemed safe or certain right now. The only wise thing to do was to stay in his room and not involve himself any further in this God-accursed feast.

He lay there awhile longer, clenching his blankets in his hands and gnashing his teeth until his head hurt. Then his father arrived.

Osbern heard the man’s loud, shuffling steps long before his shadow fell over the doorway. Osbern sat up straight, his heart in his throat. But he did not get out of bed. Not even when his father stepped through the doorway and looked down at him.

“What. Are you. Doing,” said Richard slowly.

“Nothing,” said Osbern. “I’m doing nothing. So why don’t you—”

Richard reached down and gripped his ear. Then he yanked so hard that Osbern cried out.

“Get up,” growled Richard. “Get up!

The sharp pain had caused tears to spring to Osbern’s eyes. But the embarrassment hurt more than anything else. He scrambled out of bed, disentangling himself from the blankets and planting himself on his feet, breathing sharply and waiting until at last Richard let go of his ear. Osbern looked down at the ground, trying to recover his breath and afraid to look at his father.

“I don’t care how bad you may feel,” hissed Richard. “I feel bad every fucking day. You don’t let pain—or anything else—keeping you from doing your duty. To do so makes you weak, Osbern. Do you wish to be weak?

“No, Father.” Osbern’s gaze traversed the smooth surface of the floor beneath them.

“Hey.”

Osbern flinched as Robert grabbed his shoulder. But he only did so to shake Osbern, and force his son to look up at him.

“There are some thegns here who wish to feast with us,” said Richard. “You will not keep them waiting.”

“Yes, Father.”

Richard pulled Osbern forward as he let go. Then he nudged him ahead. “Go on, then.”

Osbern bent to collect his boots. After a year of walking in them, the leather boots had conformed to the shape of Osbern’s feet. As such, one of them bent slightly inwards. Osbern stared at it a moment before bothering to pull it on. He tried so hard to forget about the fact that he had one bad foot. Richard tried even harder to forget about his own twisted legs. But the world did not forget. The truth could not be denied. Even his own boots recognized the truth better than he did. One foot turned inwards, despite several attempts to set it straight in his youth, and the other did not. No amount of denial could change that simple fact.

Go on!

Osbern stepped forward. His bad foot made him stagger for a moment, but he quickly corrected himself. Richard hated to see Osbern stagger. So Osbern straightened his stance and swept his legs forward. He sought the delicate balance between walking strongly and not getting too far ahead of his father. He must always be mindful of both. He must never disappoint his father. He must never step out of line.

He found himself walking faster.

He heard his father shuffling after him. He did not slow down. Instead he walked even faster.

Richard did not call after him, only struggled to catch up. Osbern felt a bitter satisfaction deep in his gut just picturing his father now, struggling to balance upon his big frame, too proud to ask Osbern to slow down. Osbern resisted the temptation to turn around to look.

Soon enough he swept into the dining hall, where he found the great feast laid out on the table and a few thegns awaiting his presence. For a moment the beauty of the scene before him nearly fooled him. Roasted chicken, honeyed pottage, eel, berries, plums, mead, cider, cabbage, carrots … even the long oak table could barely contain such a food supply. Meanwhile, a large number of Saxon thegns stood around the room—more than Osbern had expected. They did not come here for the food. They came to win Richard’s friendship and trust, just in case the Norman lord remained as powerful as he believed himself to be. Osbern resisted the urge to laugh at them, to call them all fools; they should realize that just by coming here and showing respect, they gave Lord Richard the very power they feared.

Two particular people caught his gaze, and Osbern started at the sight of them. Thegn Godric stood quietly against the wall, his dark eyepatch covering the sunken gash of his face, his burly arms folded behind him. Next to him stood Edric, bright red hair and all, his smaller arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. Osbern could not restrain a small snort of satisfaction. Edric did not want to be here, but his father had dragged him here anyway. The youth reluctantly met Osbern’s gaze and withered under it. Osbern’s mind raced with all the smart remarks he could make to the self-righteous Saxon from this moment onward.

But at last Richard caught up with him, staggering into the hall without being able to hide his strained breath. “Please, everyone, sit and eat.”

They did so, pretending not to notice Richard’s beleaguered movement as he made his way to the head of the table. Osbern sat near him on the bench, not sure whether to be pleased or annoyed that he ended up across from Edric.

Soon enough, hands passed around bowls and reached greedily for fruits and vegetables. Servants came around to refill goblets, but could hardly quench the thirst of the men and women at the table. The thegns commended Richard verbally on his home and food, but this was not such a great compliment as the manner with which they consumed them all. Osbern watched their enthusiasm with some surprise. Perhaps he had been wrong to expect such a miserable feast as he had begun to envision. Perhaps now that most of the slaves had gone home, the Anglo-Saxons would truly begin to see their Norman neighbors differently.

Then his eyes fell on Edric, and all his hope dropped away again. Edric sat glaring at the food, arms still crossed over his chest, and not taking a single bite. Someone must have put some food on his plate, but he did not even touch it.

“Edric.” Godric spoke with a low voice, and Osbern might not have heard the reprimand if he had not been playing close attention. The older warrior nudged his son with his elbow. “Eat your food!”

Osbern’s heart fell further when Edric’s gaze met his. He had not meant to be caught staring. This only seemed to encourage Edric.

“It’s not my food,” said Edric, glaring through a stray curl at Osbern.

Hoping the Saxon was hungry, Osbern picked up a fat piece of chicken and sank his teeth into the meat.

Godric growled something under his breath to Edric.

“Something wrong?” said Richard.

With one last warning scowl at his son, Godric returned his attention to the lord of the castle. “It seems that Edric is not very hungry.”

“I see.” But Richard’s brows lowered with concern.

Osbern watched Edric, helplessly intrigued as to what he might do next. The boy was stubborn enough to disobey a man like Godric. Osbern had to admit that took courage. But how would Edric react to Richard?

Edric stared back at the lord for a moment, then his gaze dropped back to his plate.

To his own surprise, Osbern felt a little disappointed. He realized he had wanted to see what would happen if Edric repeated the same words of indignation he had said to Osbern in Shrewsbury to Lord Richard himself. He did not want to see Edric victorious. So why would he wish for such a thing?

But he kept watching, and he saw Edric’s hand tightening around his dinner knife. The young Saxon’s jaws bulged as he clenched them. His frame shook slightly. Edric’s anger was building inside him, gathering strength the longer he stared at the buttery role of bread on his plate. Then, when everyone had resumed eating and forgotten the minor disturbance, the words burst out of his mouth.

“This food should go to the men and women who built this castle! Not to people like us who sat by and watched them do it!”

A ripple of anxiety spread through the room. Everyone paused amidst chewing or reaching for more food. Even the servants standing nearby—perhaps them especially—snapped suddenly to attention.

Richard just looked at Edric with such shock on his face that Osbern would cherish the sight of it forever. Belatedly, Osbern realized this is what he had wanted to see all along. He had wanted to see how his father reacted when someone dared to challenge him.

Only when Richard turned that expression on his son did Osbern remember himself. Unlike Edric, he wilted under that fierce gaze. He turned to the young Saxon, sputtering out a response as quickly as he could manage one. “I invited anyone who wished to come, as you saw. It is not their own fault if they did not come here to get the food.”

“They should not have to go anywhere!” Edric was pale with terror, his body trembling, but he did not let his fear get the best of him. “They should have eaten like this for every day of their labor! They should have—”

Godric stood up suddenly, grabbed his son’s tunic, and wrenched him to his feet.

“My son has a tender spot in his heart for the poor and unfortunate,” said Godric through gritted teeth, even as his son wriggled in his grip. “He must have gotten that from his mother. Forgive him, Richard. He means no disrespect.”

“Yes I d—!”

Godric knocked Edric’s breath from his chest with a firm shove towards the doorway. With surprising grace, he turned to give Richard a bow before following Edric out. “Thank you for your hospitality. We’ll be going now.”

And just like that, they were gone.

An awkward silence followed Godric’s and Edric’s departure. But at some point the thegns resumed eating, some continued talking, and most of the table managed to pretend as if nothing untoward had happened.

Osbern, on the other hand, had lost his appetite. He could not pay attention to the trivial conversations and empty compliments being exchanged around him. All he could do was replay the scene in his head over and over again. He recalled with vivid detail how Edric had stood up to a room of powerful men and displeased his own dangerous father. He wondered how Godric would punish him for it, and found himself hoping that it was not in the same way Richard disciplined his own son.

In what seemed no time at all, plates were being emptied, bellies patted, and farewells exchanged. While Osbern sat in a daze, unable to understand why what had just happened impacted him so greatly, the feast had concluded. One by one the Saxons shuffled out, the servants cleared away empty dishes, and the crowd dwindled to Osbern, Richard, and a few of their knights. Soon enough, even the knights walked away.

Osbern feared looking at his father. Would Richard detect the thoughts running through Osbern’s mind? Could he sense the anger burning in his son’s veins, on the verge of pouring over the surface?

Before Richard could say anything, Osbern stood. He knew he could not leave yet. He knew his father would stop him if he tried. Richard wanted to say something as surely as Osbern wanted to say something back. But he delayed this moment for as long as he could by crossing to the window and looking out of it. He watched from the height of the tower as the Saxon lords rode out of the gate into the pink light of the evening.

Osbern remembered Godric and Edric’s departure. Then he remembered the look on Richard’s face when Edric spoke against him. Those wide eyes, that gaping mouth, that long face … Osbern didn’t know if he’d ever seen something so ridiculous in his entire life.

And then he burst out laughing.

“What are you laughing at?” Richard finally growled from his seat. “What do you find funny?

“The feast, Father.” Amidst a torrent of fresh chuckles, Osbern struggled to draw the breath to speak. “Did you not find it funny, yourself?”

Grunting, Richard stood and made his way around the table. Even when Osbern sensed his father’s approach, he could not stop laughing.

“That feast was humiliating,” said Richard. “First of all, you should have gotten more people to come. Second of all, you should never have let Edric entertain such low opinions of us.”

“I should not have let him?” Osbern’s chuckles ceased, if only for a moment. “Father, how does Edric’s nonsense have anything to do with me?”

“You met him when he was young. You should have made a good impression on him. You might have even befriended him. At the very least he should have learned to respect you, look up to you, just as all the boys and girls his age should have! Instead you made them resent you, and in turn, me!

“Everyone resents you, Father. It’s about fucking time you realized that!”

The last of his breath blew out of him as Richard’s fist struck his stomach. Before he could try to breathe again, Richard grabbed his shoulders and flung him to the ground.

Osbern was still too staggered from the first blow to prepare for the fall. His elbow and knee smacked painfully against the stone floor. He crumpled the rest of the way, unwilling to push himself back up. His whole body ached and he struggled to recover his breath. His head spun and yet this awful, inexplicable laughter kept bubbling in his chest. When he recovered enough, a little snort came out again.

Richard grabbed the table for balance and pulled back his leg to kick. Osbern scrambled out of the way in time, but then he sneered back up at his father. He did not feel like himself. He did not know how he had brought himself to speak to Richard that way. For better or worse, Edric must have inspired him. In any case, now that the dam had broken, Osbern could not push back the deluge. “You know it’s not my fault people didn’t come today,” he gasped. “It’s the fact this fucking castle exists in the first place!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Richard’s voice was low and guttural. The veins of his large forehead bulged over his eyebrows. “This castle will protect them. Once they learn to accept me as—”

“They will not accept us.” Osbern grabbed the edge of the table and pulled himself to his knees. He winced and clutched his stomach, feeling his guts throb inside him. He did not think his father had ever hit him so hard as that before. But tonight, he could take it. Tonight, he felt instilled with unusual power. “Not until we learn to play the role properly.”

“Play what role? What do you mean?”

Osbern didn’t really know. He just knew that somehow, it was important. He was going to say something, but his next breath hurt more than the last, and he curled in on himself, gritting his teeth.

Richard took this as an opportunity to strike with a new argument. “You’re the one who has misjudged his role here, Osbern. You vilify the Anglo-Saxons every chance you get. You ought to be making friends and building trust with them. I taught you to try to be one of them. Instead you cling to your homeland even more fiercely than I do. Do you even remember Normandy? You should not. This is your home. These people are your neighbors. But you treat them like enemies.”

The last of Osbern’s laughter was gone. Instead he felt empty inside, all except for a dull, pulsing ache. He didn’t even know how much of it came from the punch anymore. The pain seemed to rise to his chest, constricting his breath. His nails dug into the table. As he peered over it, he noticed the dark shape of Geoffrey, looming quietly in the corner. Why was he here? To aid in Osbern’s torture? He groaned and lay his forehead against the table, feeling splinters bite his skin.

He closed his eyes and saw the wolf again, rising towards him from the muck.

Play the role properly …

Through fluttering lashes, Osbern looked back at his father.

“You did not teach me to be one of them. You taught me to think like a Norman. You showed me that anyone can be an enemy, and the only living creature a man should trust is his horse. You taught me not to be weak. Is it not weak to make friends of people who despise us? To bend to the wishes of those who cannot train a horse properly, or best us in swordplay?”

“It is not so simple.”

“Yes it is, Father. You are just too fucking stubborn to see it. The Saxons hate you. They will never be your friends, and they will never accept you, any more than the Normans did. No matter where you go, you are just a foolish old man who can’t even walk straight!”

He watched Richard’s hand rise. He prepared himself for the blow. He suspected that this one might surpass even the last. And yet for some reason he stayed there, waiting for it, even welcoming the onslaught.

A smack of flesh marked the sound of Geoffrey catching Richard’s arm. Lord Richard struggled against him, but he could not keep his balance while Geoffrey held him firmly. With a careful flex of his fingers, Geoffrey released him and Richard went staggering backwards. He caught himself against the wall, breathing raggedly.

No one spoke for a time, only struggled to catch their breaths and calm their rapid heartbeats. Osbern stared curiously at Geoffrey, unable to explain why the knight would rise to his defense. Geoffrey only glared through his yellow bangs at Richard, waiting for the large lord to make another move.

“Osbern,” rasped Richard at last. He sounded weak and strained, all anger sapped from his body. “You may feel as if we have fought to make our stance here in Engla-lond. Perhaps it has seemed like a battle to you, and I was wrong if I encouraged you to think that way. But now the castle is finished. The slaves have been sent home. We are ready to help the Anglo-Saxons and return their support. Our rivalry with them is finished.”

“No.” Osbern looked at Geoffrey. In the knight’s pale eyes he saw his own fears reflected, a future of constant struggle and endless bloodshed. Only Geoffrey seemed to look forward to it. “It is only beginning.”

**

READ MORE

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,

the novel concluding the Sons of Mercia series,

releases October 2, 2012

For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

*

AUTHOR’S NOTE

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 right column of this blog.

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Published in: on September 18, 2012 at 6:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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