A quick return to the tale of Edric the Wild….
Audrey walked quietly next to Edric, watching the low hills and tangled scrub of western Engla-lond become a silhouette of black bumps in front of the setting sun. For some reason, the shape of the horizon reminded her of a toad’s warty back, and she wanted to laugh. But the somberness of her companion stifled her budding amusement.
Edric seemed unaware of the humor, or perhaps anything at all, as his boots plodded methodically through the grass and his stare remained grim beneath brows of knit concentration. Once, he might have enjoyed leading a group of rebel Saxons into Wales for a surprise attack against the Normans. These days, he remained somber no matter what the occasion. He had good reason. His wife and true love had abandoned him without explanation. His country was being choked into submission by William the Bastard and his hordes of Norman soldiers. But that didn’t stop Audrey from wanting to see him smile.
Eventually, Audrey dared to raise her voice. “I heard that you asked Meirion to accompany you across the Welsh border.”
Edric made a small sound which might have been a grunt of assent, but otherwise kept trudging onwards without reply.
“I think you two will make a great team,” she prodded.
This earned a much louder grunt from Edric’s throat. “We’ll see.” He turned his head slightly, just enough to glance at Audrey. The dying rays of sunlight seemed to set his red hair on fire with color. “Why do you like him so much?”
Audrey shrugged, as if the question didn’t set butterflies loose in her stomach. “I don’t know. He makes me smile. And why do you care?”
“What? I don’t.” Edric looked away from her probing stare, then fell back into silence.
He did not notice that Audrey’s smile had stretched wider, so that now she grinned with unrestrained satisfaction.
Later that night, as she sat next to Meirion by a low camp-fire, her smile remained. He was talking about something—telling her some silly story about how he had once fallen off a horse and then chased it with a stick—but his words did not matter. What mattered was the twinkle of mirth always shining in his bright blue eyes, the optimism of his lilting voice, and the way he gave a funny jerk of his head whenever his short black hair fell into his eyes. She found it endlessly delightful, and the next time he did it, she realized she was laughing aloud.
He looked at her curiously through the drifting smoke of the fire. His smirk took on a curious quality as he lifted an eyebrow. “Are you laughing at me or the horse in this story? Or are you just laughing at me in general?”
“I’m laughing… because I feel like it.” When she calmed down, she fixed him with a steadier stare through the firelight, though her eyes continued to moisten with merriment. “You just make me want to laugh.”
“Ah,” he said, and his smile drooped slightly.
At that, she just laughed harder. “What I mean is… you make me feel joyful. Hopeful. In a way that no one else has made me feel except…” She took a moment to consider this. Then the moment stretched on, until the blackness of the night sky seemed to seep through it, and she dared not continue.
She tried to avoid Meirion’s gaze, hoping to drop the subject completely. She poked at a log in the fire as if her mind had simply wandered to more important matters. But his blue eyes continue to pierce her through the shadows.
“I suppose Lord Edric has always had a way of spreading hope,” said Meirion carefully, “even when his silvatici have lost their homes and fortunes and… well, everything.”
Audrey just snorted. Then she continued to stoke the fire and grit her teeth. She did not want to admit her own doubts and fears about Edric to anyone other than Edric himself, even if she was not yet ready to do so.
She did not want to voice the fact that the light shining from Edric had been extinguished some time ago, and she feared it would never return.
Meirion’s voice sounded so brusque, so uncharacteristically grave, that she flinched visibly. When she looked at him, no hint of his usual grin remained. “What?” she asked at last, even though she was afraid to hear the answer.
“I feel that you should… know something, though I hesitate to tell you.”
“What is it?” Her heart felt like a cold lump in her chest. The world had fallen into deathly silence, so that her ears seemed to ring while she waited for Meirion’s response. She had never seen him so serious.
“The other night… just before Edric announced that he would take us to Wales… I overheard him talking to Leofred. I did not mean to at first. But when I realized I could hear them talking through the trees, and they were unaware of my presence, my curiosity got the better of me.”
“Just tell me,” she snapped.
“Right.” He took a deep breath, gulped, then continued. “Apparently, Lord Geoffrey—forgive me, I should no longer call him ‘lord’—Osbern’s knight, Geoffrey de Faucon, made Edric a strange offer.”
A chill went through her body and settled in her bones. Geoffrey. The name of the man who had killed and tortured so many of her friends and neighbors. A man who had nearly taken her as a victim—not once, but twice—and yet she had escaped both times. A murderer whose golden eyes had stared at her as a hungry dog would look upon fresh, bloody meat.
“He said that he would kill Osbern FitzRichard, his own Suzerain, if only Edric would hand you over.”
She stopped breathing. She stared into the fire and thought she would gladly let it consume her, if Geoffrey was the alternative.
“The idea seemed to disgust Edric,” said Meirion softly. “But… I know that these are hard times, especially for him. I know that Edric has become… well. Different. A man who has lost his hope. And for that reason… I just wanted to warn you.”
“Thank you,” whispered Audrey. But the words were cold and empty. She didn’t want to thank him. She wanted to scream and yell and draw a sword on someone. She wanted anything other than the truth.
She did not hear him move closer. If she had, she would have shied away, afraid that in her distress she might grab his neck and strangle him. But then he leaned against her, ever so gently—just his shoulder against hers—and all feelings of violence melted away. She leaned her head against the crook of his neck, and listened to the gentle flow of his breath, and realized he had never finished his story.
“Tell me what happened to that horse, in your story,” she demanded.
“Ah yes! Well, you see…” And as he kept talking, she could hear the edge of a smile return to his voice, and that was all that mattered.