The Hopeful Companion

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.

“Audrey.”

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.

*

Edric the Wild cover

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Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 7:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Meeting The Monarchs: The Hunt For King Alfred

Today I am pleased to share a guest article written by Evelyn Croft. The recent discoveries of hard-working archaeologists are very exciting, indeed. It makes me wonder if the remains of Eadric Streona might one day be discovered. Alas, given the disgraceful nature of his death, that is highly unlikely!

***

Meeting The Monarchs: The Hunt For King Alfred

Over the last few months the world has watched in awe as the story of the last Plantagenet King of England, Richard III unfolded. With his body being found in a car park, and the resultant tests on the skeleton and facial reconstruction bringing forth much historical debate and scholarly discussion on matters relating to his rule and now how and where his body should be reburied.

Whilst this was happening, in another corner of the United Kingdom, work was also being quietly undertaken to ascertain whether the body of possibly the most well known Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred The Great, has now been found and what this means in terms of research on his life and times.

Alfred The Great

It is thought that the bones of Alfred The Great (c849-899), who ruled from 871 to his death, and who was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, had lain in St Bartholomew’s Church, Winchester since the 19th Century. He had previously been buried at Hyde Abbey, but when it was ruined during the 1530s, the his remains and possibly five of his family members including his wife were exhumed and reburied in the aforementioned church.

This recent excavation comes about after it was feared that following the successful excavation of Richard III, there may be an attempt to steal the bones or vandalize the resting place. The decision to undertake the exhumation was made by the Parish Council of St Bartholomews church.

Long standing arguments settled

If these are indeed the bones of Alfred, it will settle a long argument as to what actually happened to him after his death, as it was for a long time felt that his bones had been lost forever. This is not an unusual occurrence for the time – as in the following century, Alfred’s grandson King Athelstan (generally though to be first King of England as a united country) died and was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, but his tomb is now believed to be empty and his remains lost.

The University of Winchester is seeking to gain permission to undertake osteo-archaeological and DNA study of the bones exhumed to ascertain whether they do belong to Alfred and his wife and family or not.

The chances that they are his remains are entirely plausible. When the bones were first exhumed from Hyde Abbey hundreds of years ago, they were said to be the oldest there. Monks had only been present at Hyde from the 12 century onwards, meaning the only other burials there may have been higher ranked individuals from previous centuries. Scientists will need to undertake a radio carbon dating of the remains to ascertain their age. If they date from the 10th century or even slightly before it offers an excellent probability that they belong to Alfred and his family.

What his bones may be able to tell us

One of the main issues with the bones, if they are that of the late King, is that they are now so old that DNA might be totally impossible to extract – though it is not impossible.

In 2008, the body of Alfred’s granddaughter Princess Eadgyth was unearthed Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, more than 1000 years after her own death. Her remains had also been thought lost, but had actually been reburied as late as 1510 in a lead sarcophagus in the Cathedral. On studying the bones they were able to find out that she ate a high protein diet, rich in marine life that she was a frequent horse rider and that most importantly, they indicated that she had been born in the Kingdom of Wessex, which proved beyond all doubt she was Alfred’s granddaughter.

If it was possible for Scientists to be able to take a sample, perhaps from one of the teeth or indeed leg bones that may have survived, this can provide a rich seam of information for the modern historian on everything from his diet, his lifestyle, his overall health and any medical conditions he may have suffered from, including matters pertaining to his sexual health too. Osteo-archaeologists can tell from merely looking at the bones themselves what conditions a person suffered from in life. If, for instance, the King suffered from a condition such as syphilis, the bones of his legs or arms may be pock-marked or take on a honeycomb style appearance. They will show up any mineral deficiencies he may have had and even might be able to indicate whether he suffered from any degenenerative or chronic health conditions that may have shortened his lifespan.

Once permission is gained to begin the study and examination of the bones it is hoped that a whole new interest in a fascinating King and a relatively little known period of history will be re-kindled. Archaeologists involved also hope that in the event the bones are proved to be Alfred’s, they may also be able to find living descendants just as they have done with the late King Richard.

____

Article by Evelyn Croft

5/1/2013

 

Edric the Wild Excerpt

Well everyone, it has been fun sharing the Last Tales with you. I have already begun to miss the world of Anglo-Saxon England and all the characters I’ve gotten to know so well over the last few years. But you can stay with them for awhile longer. Next Tuesday, October 2, the final volume releases. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story of Edric, Osbern, Geoffrey, Audrey, and the many more characters of Edric the Wild!

If you’d like a head-start, I’ve provided the first 17 pages of the novel below. Enjoy!

Releasing October 2, 2012
Cover art by Del Melchionda

 

Chapter 1

Winter 1059 A.D.

 

On his sixteenth birthday, Edric became intoxicated for the first time and made an unusual resolution. “I am going to punch Osbern FitzRichard in the face,” he declared.

Whether he would have made such a decision without so much wine in his bloodstream, one could hardly say. Perhaps the wine gave him an excuse. He had certainly wanted to punch Osbern many, many times before. But he had never decided to go through with it until now.

His dear friend, Leofred, fixed him with a drunken stare of his own. The young man had hardly downed a single horn of alcohol, and yet he was already swaying about on his seat. Despite this, he seemed to maintain a better state of mind than Edric. “Um … that does not seem like a good thing to do.”

Edric’s gaze narrowed on the young noble on the other side of the tavern. Osbern FitzRichard was as Norman as they came. His dark hair was cut high up his head, so short that his pale skin remained visible up the back of his neck to the top circle of his scalp. He wore a long flowing tunic and a short mantle about his shoulders. He had big, droopy lips and cruel, gleaming eyes. Most offensively, he was now making a clumsy attempt to dance to the beat of the harpist’s jig. His leather boots flopped erratically against the floorboards.

“Just look at him tumble, Leofred,” said Edric. “I think it would be a mercy to everyone in this tavern to flatten him now.”

Leofred followed his gaze and grimaced. “By God, you’re right.”

Edric took another swig of wine, hissing through his teeth as he swallowed the sweet liquor. He felt like a strong man, as large and burly as his father, as he pushed himself up to his feet. Perhaps that was because the spirits made his lean form feel heavier than usual, but never mind that. His curly red hair flashed across his eyes, completing for him the hellish visage of Osbern, the oaf kicking his feet next to the fire.

Osbern’s dancing was indeed un-Godly, but that was not the real reason Edric wished to punch him. His lack of musical coordination was the least of the Norman’s insults to his Anglo-Saxon neighbors. He was a cruel young boy who abused the peasants working his father’s lands by bullying them with the sword. He forced laborers from the fields to leave their crops and help Lord Richard FitzScrob construct his enormous castle. The father and son took more than their fair share of serfs’ dues and committed all sorts of foul deeds against well-meaning folks without any repercussions.

So what might happen if Edric punched him in the face? There was only one way to find out.

He turned to go and then paused again. “I suppose I mustn’t land the first blow,” he realized aloud. “That would give the wrong impression.”

Leofred held up a finger as if stricken by a brilliant idea. “Get him to swing at you first.”

“Ah yes,” said Edric. “I will begin by striking him with words. But what shall I say?”

Leofred shrugged helplessly.

Edric smacked the table. “I’ll come up with something!” He turned to go again.

“Wait!” called Leofred, and once more Edric halted. “I’d like to dance with a girl first.”

Edric struggled to fix his swimming eyes on his friend. “Can’t you do that later?”

“Might be harder for me to,” said Leofred, “if you’ve gone and punched someone.”

Edric considered the truth of this. He felt sorry for the young stable-hand, keeper of his father’s horses. God had not been kind to the youth when creating his appearance. He was simply ugly, with crooked eyes and jutting teeth, and a large birthmark on one side of his face. Leofred’s resolution to dance with a willing maiden was much more outlandish than Edric’s desire to punch someone. He didn’t want to say as much to his friend, but he also didn’t want to wait to punch Osbern until Leofred found a dancing partner. He could be waiting forever.

The Anglo-Saxon lord sighed. “Which one would you like to dance with?”

Leofred’s eyes brightened with hope. “That one!” Naturally, he picked the most beautiful maiden in the room. Her dress hung low and tight to outline the swell of her breasts, and her hair fell in gorgeous brown waves on either side of them, like a frame. Edric scratched uncertainly at his red curls.

“Should I go and ask her?” Leofred started to stand up.

“Ah, no, no, no.” Edric put a hand on the stable-boy’s chest and guided him firmly back down. “I’ve a better idea. I’ll go over and talk to her first. We’ll make her think it’s her own idea to dance with you, you see. What do you say?”

“Splendid!”

Edric forced his mouth to grin until he turned the other way, at which point it fell back into a frown. He glanced longingly at Osbern’s prancing figure. How much better Osbern’s face would look with a slightly crooked nose. But he pushed that thought aside, and made his way over to the gorgeous maiden’s table.

As they fell on him, her brown eyes twinkled with that perfect combination of innocence and knowing.

“Ah,” he said. “My lady. What is your name?”

“Gwendolyn.”

So she was also Welsh, then. At least she was not Norman. He tried to bow graciously to her, though in his tipsy state, he bowed much lower than he intended. “You’re so very beautiful, Gwendolyn.” He looked up at her through his lashes.

She struggled not to giggle. “And you’re … cute.”

Edric frowned. Girls often called him “cute,” and he grew tired of it. He was a bit soft around the edges, he knew, and his cheeks tended to carry a soft pink glow. But he had hoped that by the age of sixteen, the girls would stop making the same faces at him that they made at newborn puppies. “I beg a favor.”

“Yes?” She cocked a neatly arched eyebrow. How perfectly her lips puckered beneath her nose, as if permanently primed for the kissing! Must Leofred have aimed so high?

Only one way to achieve this, he decided. He reached into his purse and pulled out a silver piece.

The lady’s eyes opened wide and her smile dissolved. Her friends murmured in tones of disapproval.

Belatedly, Edric realized he had led her to the wrong assumption. “A dance, a dance!” he cried, his cheeks growing hot with a blush.

The ladies fell into relieved laughter, and the sharp corners of the lady’s mouth turned up again. “In that case, I—”

“Not with me.”

She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, tiring of the games.

“It’s my friend, over there, whom I wish you to dance with.” He stepped aside and revealed Leofred sitting a few tables away. “The fellow with the, er, lovely shadow on his cheek.” He cursed himself for pointing out Leofred’s birthmark, but the stable-hand had no other feature so distinguishing.

Leofred must have met her gaze for a moment, for his eyes went wide, but then he turned aside and twiddled his fingers, as if he had not seen anything out of the ordinary.

For a long moment, Gwendolyn looked uncertain. Then she stood up, haughty and indignant, and snatched the coin from Edric’s fingers. Without another word, she stormed away, but fortunately for Edric, she stormed in the direction of Leofred.

“What did I do?” he said.

Her friends snickered, but offered no other wisdom.

To Edric’s relief, Gwendolyn fulfilled her part of the bargain and led Leofred to the dance floor. In a few moments the two of them were gliding along the floor in perfect sway to the melody. Perhaps Leofred possessed a poor face, but he could dance well enough, and soon even Gwendolyn seemed to enjoy herself.

Witnessing the joy on his friend’s face, Edric felt pleased. The jovial mood of the tavern lifted his spirits and filled him with cheer. Outside a cold wind blustered and even creaked against the wooden walls, but it could not pierce the warmth and coziness of the hall. The smells of bread and butter seemed permanently soaked into the walls, softening the more pungent aromas of the travelers and field-hands. This tavern betwixt Watling Street and Shrewsbury town attracted a motley crew—even some wealthier lads like Edric and Osbern who needed an escape from their halls—but most people here banded together like equals.

Remembering Osbern, Edric’s mood soured again. At last he returned to his primary purpose. He staggered past the seated folk of the tavern, who paid the red-headed youth little mind at all, and made his way to the open floor. Osbern was still hopping about like a fool and, worst of all, he had pulled over a maiden to join him. She did not look very pleased as she struggled to keep in time with his awkward movements, but her humility obliged her to keep trying.

“Hey Osbern,” Edric shouted. His voice was unnecessarily loud over the harp and cut through the hum of the tavern’s noise. “Having a bit of trouble, are you?”

Osbern slowed down, gripping the maiden’s hand stubbornly as he continued to jiggle in place. His thick eyebrows furrowed close together, casting a long shadow over his maple-brown eyes. “What’s that? No, I am fine!” He spoke with a thick Norman accent.

“You Normans have a strange style of dancing,” Edric sneered, “and an even stranger way of dressing for it. Is that a woman’s dress you’re wearing?”

Osbern flushed, glaring down at his own attire. Strange or not, the fabric was quiet beautiful, twined of blue and silver threads. “It’s called a long tunic, you filthy burgher. And I am trying to dance in your awkward Saxon style.”

“Forgive me,” said Edric. “I did not realize. I suppose it is impossible to take the steps properly with crooked feet.”

The casual chatter in the tavern faded to silence. The harp clanged as the player missed a note, though he mercifully kept playing, anyway. If he had not, a mortified quietude would have filled the room, for everyone stared in horror at the two teenaged boys. A few dance pairs away, Leofred and Gwendolyn watched anxiously.

“They are not crooked,” Osbern said at last, his voice wavering like the harpists’ strings. “I … I only have one bad foot, and it’s nearly fixed.”

Edric swayed slightly on his feet, feeling light-headed. Somewhere in his clouded consciousness, he sensed that perhaps he had chosen his insult poorly. The fact that many members of Osbern’s family had crooked feet was not just a joke; it was a reality. But it was too late to go back now. “So then,” he forged onward. He wished to end the talking as soon as possible and get to the punching. “Is your family’s true affliction mere clumsiness?”

Osbern lunged forward.

Whether Osbern’s foot was bad or not, Edric was much faster. He dodged aside so that Osbern’s knuckles grazed nothing but the edge of his red curls, sending a breeze past Edric’s cheek. Then Edric’s thrust up his own fist, knocking Osbern’s nose from below. A spray of blood went up, and Osbern’s eyes opened wide, watching this crimson fountain. The moment seemed suspended as everyone stared upon this unexpected sight. Osbern’s cry of pain followed shortly after.

The harpist ceased strumming.

Osbern at last fell over, catching himself with one hand while the other covered his nose. Edric watched in awe as dark red blood spilled through the Norman lad’s fingers.

For a moment, he stood transfixed. He had wanted to punch Osbern and he had done so. But he had not expected anything quite so gruesome. A gesture intended to injure the lord’s pride had caused a wound much more grievous.

Edric sensed men coming closer on either side of them; there were only two, but they were large strapping men, and they were armed. They were Lord Osbern’s knights.

“How now,” said Edric. “He swung at me first—”

Someone grabbed his arm and pulled. That someone was his dear friend Leofred, who possessed none of his friend’s boldness, but made up for it with common sense.

Edric was dazed enough to follow his friend’s lead, and together they stumbled out of the tavern, their leather boots bumbling across the floorboards.

The cold winter air struck Edric like a slap and he stopped just past the lip of the doorway, contemplating the frigid winter night ahead of him and the smoky tavern warmth behind him. He even turned slightly back around, but his eyes caught the glint of firelight against iron, and he realized this might be one of Osbern’s knights closing in on him. He dashed forward, his hand groping in the darkness for his friend. Leofred clutched his shoulder and led him onward, and they rushed round the tavern to their horses. Edric’s black stallion, Scima, was hard to find in the shadows. But Edric managed to find his horse and again he paused. He clung to the saddle, listening to the sounds behind him, or lack thereof. “But we shouldn’t have to leave. He swung at me first! If we run away, it will only make me look guilty.”

“Damn it, Edric, they’re coming!” Leofred’s hand lifted into the moonlight, pointing to two figures coming out of the tavern.

Edric decided it was too late to save face, so he tried to pull himself up. Unfortunately, he found it difficult with so much wine weighing down his body. His writhing efforts upset his horse, who shuffled from side to side and lashed its tail against his cheek. He cried out and struggled to hold on as the stallion spun in a circle.

Leofred reached down and smacked the horse’s haunches, and the beast at last lunged forward, carrying Edric away whether he liked it or not. A surge of strength filled his limbs and at last he straddled his mount, though he failed to anchor his weight and bobbed helplessly about.

The wind gripped his cloak and sent cold fingers down his tunic, but as his horse thundered from the tavern and across the loping fields, elation stirred in him again. Beside him, Leofred and his own horse became a blur of moonlit lines and curves. Beyond the fields, the treetops sparkled with frost and the stars of the sky twinkled. Somewhere far away, a wolf howled. How beautiful it all seemed, how magnificent, how absolutely wonderful.

He glanced back and saw that no one pursued them.

“I did it by God!” he cried. “I punched Osbern FitzRichard!”

He laughed with glee, but his companion remained strangely quiet.

*

In the morning he awoke in his own bed with an aching head and stomach. The sunlight seared his eyes and his head throbbed as he considered the events of the night before. Did he correctly remember the spray of blood flying from the Norman’s nose? He winced at this visual. The sound of his fist striking Osbern’s skull seemed to resound in his ears, booming over and over again.

Then he realized that the sound in his head came from someone knocking on his door.

His heart leapt in his chest and he scrambled out of his sheets. The sudden movement felt like a knife stab in the skull. As silently as he could, he hurried about the room getting dressed.

“Edric? Edric!”

He had already guessed who it was, so the booming voice through the door only confirmed it. “I’m coming, I’m coming!”

His father was not in the mood to wait any longer, however. He swept open the door and stepped inside.

Edric stopped in the midst of tightening his garters. He grinned through his frizzy hair and pretended as if nothing were amiss.

Godric, however, stared back with an expression of shock and, worst of all, sadness. “You … forgot?”

It was strange to see his father’s weathered face look so hurt. Even though of Anglo-Saxon birth, Godric appeared to be a Viking. He wore an eyepatch over one eye, or lack thereof, for it had been carved from his skull as a boy. Edric knew this had something to do with the terrible crimes of his grandfather, Eadric Streona. Godric’s good eye was as blue and crisp as the sea. His tawny hair fell past his shoulders, which were large and burly, and Edric knew that one of them sported a large, knotted scar of pink flesh.

“I didn’t forget, Father. I just slept in. And I don’t feel well.”

“Why not?” Godric hurried forward, his heavy boots creaking against the floorboards. He gripped Edric’s chin and studied his face closely. “You look pale.”

“I’m well, thanks.”

“You just said you weren’t. What did you do last night?”

Edric groaned and rubbed his forehead. “I drank too much is all.”

“Did you do anything you regret?”

A moment ago Edric would have said yes. But he thought again of Osbern’s head flying back and the blood spraying. He smiled at the memory. “No. I regret nothing.”

Godric eyed him uncertainly, but saw that it was useless to keep questioning him on the matter. “You should eat something, if you can stomach it. We’ve a long day ahead of us.” But he smiled, and his one eye glistened. Edric knew that his father had looked forward to this day ever since last year, just as he had the year before that.

When Edric turned twelve years old, Godric gave him a horse of his own and led him all around the lands of their estate. They visited their tenants and laborers, sharing food and drink and discussing how they were faring through the winter. These visits were very different than any other times Godric came to see them, which was often when he needed to collect something or to resolve some sort of dispute. No, on this ride Godric was more cheerful and friendly with his peasants than ever. He oversaw some twenty hides of land, which was not so many as he had once controlled, nor as many as his neighboring thegns. But he seemed content with this number, and his tenants seemed equally content with him.

Every year now after Edric’s birthday, they rode together around their estate. The peasants would expect them now and have some treats prepared, and by the end of the day Edric would feel as fat as a pig. Edric thought Godric enjoyed the chance to be social with his peasants for the mere sake of being social, but he also thought Godric took great pride in showing his accomplishments to Edric.

Edric finished dressing himself in a soft green tunic and splashed water on his face from a bowl next to the doorway. Its icy slap helped rouse him to life. Finally he followed Godric to the hall.

He ate cheese and bread dipped in honey, and the food in his belly did him good. His mother, Osgifu, came to see him off. Her wimple of silk rustled as she leaned down to kiss his cheek. She smelled of the butter she spent many of her days churning, when she was not seeing to the finances of Godric’s estate.

“My dear Edric,” she said, “was all that drinking worth the way you feel now?” She reached out to pinch his nose.

“Bah!” he declared, and shooed her hand away. “I feel normal again, thank you.”

“Leave him be,” said Godric, but he smiled at them both. Osgifu grabbed her husband and kissed him on the lips.

Edric rolled his eyes. “Let’s be off!” he declared. Fortunately, his father was all too happy to comply.

Edric’s excitement ebbed again when the glaring sunlight struck him outside, and the stench of the stables made his stomach turn, and they found Leofred struggling miserably with their horses’ saddles. Godric watched the young stable-hand uncertainly.

“Leofred,” he said, and the poor lad jumped, for he had always been very intimidated by the one-eyed lord. “You look as bad as my son.” Leofred gulped nervously. “Did you do anything foolish?”

Thinking of it, the stable-hand suddenly beamed from ear to ear. “I danced with a beautiful lady.”

“Oh.” Godric blinked with surprise, then turned to Edric. “And what about you?”

Edric made a sour face and squinted into the orange horizon. “Look, Father, the sun is getting high.”

It was a poor attempt to dodge the question, and in a better state of mind, he would have done so more smoothly. But Godric chuckled and sank onto his horse’s saddle; he slapped his horse’s flank and together they bolted from the stable, cutting the morning frost with eager hooves. Edric sent a scowl to his friend, whose cheerfulness disagreed with him, and followed his father away.

The morning began like the ones of years past. They visited the kind shepherd, the quiet swineherd, and the jovial miller. Edric’s head ached behind the eyes but he still managed to enjoy the sound of twittering birds, the sight of melting frost, and the pleasantness of a warm fire whenever they entered someone’s house from the cold. The miller’s daughter was a nuisance, for she flirted with him incessantly with her father’s encouragement. For Godric to marry off his son to one of his own tenants would be foolish and pointless, but the miller seemed to hope for it anyway, and dropped all sorts of hints, which Godric ignored rather than deflected.

As noon fell over them, Godric and Edric progressed through the shade of scattered trees, listening to the wood creak as the wind blew and watching the dappled shadows sway left and right.

“You know,” said Godric suddenly, “you need not keep any girls a secret from me.”

The remark caught Edric completely off-guard. Not only was it rare that his father struck a conversation at all, but it was even rarer that he would strike one of this nature. “Girls! I don’t know what you mean, Father. There are none.”

“Really?”

The surprise in Godric’s voice upset Edric even more. “Of course not! Why would there be?”

Godric shrugged. “Your grandfather had a way with women. You’re a lot like him, you know.”

“No. I didn’t know.” Edric scowled. He did not like being reminded of his grandfather, Eadric Streona. Godric did not seem ashamed at all that their ancestor had been one of the greatest traitors their country had ever seen, and who had rightfully gotten his head chopped off, as far as Edric could tell. Godric even seemed proud of his father in a way Edric would never understand. They usually avoided the topic altogether, so it was strange for Godric to bring it up so casually. “They’re always making eyes at you, sighing at your every word,” said Godric. “Don’t you notice?”

Edric just snorted. He didn’t know what to say. Girls found him cute, and he often made them giggle. He knew they weren’t swept away by him in the manner Godric seemed to imagine. But why was Godric pressing him about this? His cheeks burned red as he sensed his father staring intently at him.

“You are, um … you’re not …” Godric grumbled to himself then turned away, as if giving up.

Now Edric was curious. “Am I what?”

Godric’s one eye transfixed him like a lance, and he regretted not letting the subject slip away while he had the chance. “You don’t like men, do you?”

“Men? You mean like Uncle Sigurd?”

This time, Godric was the one who turned red. He grumbled and looked away again. Technically Sigurd was a free man under Godric’s lordship, but he spent a suspicious amount of time visiting a neighboring thegn, Lord Alfric. It was not supposed to be common knowledge, and most people were good at being blind to it, but anyone of a sound mind who observed Sigurd and Alfric together long enough could guess the true nature of their relationship.

Godric and Sigurd were close friends, so close that Edric liked to call Sigurd his “uncle” out of fondness, but even Godric preferred to feign ignorance of Sigurd’s true lifestyle.

“Heavens no,” said Edric. “I just haven’t found the right woman yet.“

“The right woman?” Godric grunted.

“And who are you to disagree?” Edric straightened up indignantly. “You’re so in love with Mother you sometimes embarrass me.” He detected the slightest smile on his father’s face, and felt the same expression on his own. “Nonetheless … that is exactly the kind of love I want, Father. God has a woman for me, and she is out there somewhere, just waiting for me to discover her.”

Godric tried to push down his own smile. “Your mother and I were lucky, Edric. But before her, I spent eight years married to a reluctant woman. And though I hope you would never have to suffer so much as that, you should be prepared for the possibility.”

Edric bit back his retort. He knew for a certainty that he would marry the one woman God had picked for him, and none other. But he saw no reason to insist upon that with his father now. They would certainly disagree, and his head hurt too much to carry on an argument. Better to say nothing at all.

They experienced a short reprieve, listening to nothing but the crackling of twigs under their horses’ hooves; then they heard the thunder of a third set of hooves, rushing towards them much faster than any peace-loving horse and rider ought to.

Godric tensed and put his hand on his dagger. It was a knife short enough to use at the table yet long enough to be a weapon, and it was as beautiful as it was practical, for a dazzling red ruby tipped the hilt. But Edric still found it strange that his father depended on a dagger, rather than carrying around a sword or an axe. Godric was awkward with the sword, but masterful with the axe, and Edric did not understand why he didn’t keep an axe with him at all times. Whenever Edric mentioned it, Godric only said something cryptic about it sending him “into the past.”

Right now, Edric was more concerned about their future. But as the horse broke through the trees and revealed the intruder, the father and son released some of their tension with an exhale. It was one of Godric’s hearth companions, a large weathered fellow named Faran. Nonetheless, he seemed very unhappy.

“Godric,” he gasped, as out of breath as if he had been running alongside his horse. “It’s Richard FitzScrob. He’s in your hall with six men.”

“Richard?”

Edric’s stomach turned yet again. Somehow, no matter how much he had assured himself that the events of last night would not come back to haunt him, he had known this would happen. But Godric was right to be puzzled. He went out of his way to be kind and cooperative with the great Norman lord, so much so that it usually put a bitter taste in Edric’s mouth. Some would even call the two lords friends. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“He says we killed one of his knights. Er, named … Ralph, I think.”

“WHAT?” Godric’s must have squeezed his horse sharply, for it pranced underneath him, churning the dirt. “We? WE WHO?”

This was terrible news, of course, but in a way Edric felt relieved. This had nothing to do with him.

Such relief was short-lived. In response to Godric’s question, Faran looked at Edric. Then Godric followed his example. The fury in Godric’s eye was so intense Edric felt his insides turn to mush.

“It wasn’t me!” he cried.

“So help me God,” growled his father, “if you have broken my peace with Richard—”

“It wasn’t me, Father, I swear. I don’t even know who Ralph is!”

Godric’s horse circled his like a dog around its prey. But after a moment Godric must have decided Edric had nothing useful to offer, after all, for he reined his horse away. “Well,” he said. “Let’s go and find out.”

** END OF EXCERPT **

Published in: on September 25, 2012 at 7:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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Last Tales of Mercia 8: Audrey the Slave

Audrey schemes to escape from slavery at Lord Richard’s castle. But the cruel knight Geoffrey keeps a close watch on her every move.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

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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.

**

RICHARD’S CASTLE, SHROPSHIRE

1058 A.D.

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?”

“Not particularly.”

“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. (more…)

Last Tales of Mercia 7: Godric the Thegn

When Richard FitzScrob asks Godric to hunt for the youth who desecrated his castle, Godric’s loyalty to King Edward and the Normans will be put to the test.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

*

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.

**

SHROPSHIRE

1054 A.D.

Godric had heard many descriptions of the first Norman castle in Shropshire, but today he observed it in person for the first time. He did not feel especially impressed. Sections of a stone curtain wall rose and fell inconsistently between gaps filled by palisades. Godric surmised that the Normans had run out of stone not far into the project, or something to that effect. Perhaps they’d used all available rocks on the gatehouse, which looked formidable enough. It was the first structure on the castle to be made entirely of stone and mortar. But it would serve little purpose if the walls remained unfinished and the lord had no safe home to sleep in. Altogether the construction of the castle appeared irregular and sloppy, which no doubt resulted from the reluctance of the laborers. Godric wondered why more of the Normans didn’t do the work themselves, if they were such experts.

As he rode across the swing bridge, Godric studied the Norman guards on the other side. They failed to impress him, also. After hearing so many rumors of their bullying nature and military prowess, Godric found they paled in comparison to the Jomsviking warriors with whom he’d once fought. These were ordinary men dressed in chainmail, their bodies drooping under the heat of the summer sun and the boredom of a long day. They stared back at him with wary glances, their gazes lingering especially long on the eyepatch covering the scarred flesh of his right socket.

“I’m Thegn Godric,” he told them. “Lord Richard FitzScrob wanted to talk to me?”

The guards exchanged surprised looks, then snapped to attention. “Of course, Sir Godric,” said one of them. “Please follow me.”

One guard took Godric’s horse and the second led him into the castle grounds. Godric’s opinion of the castle continued to drop as he proceeded. The slaves cowered in the shade and the Norman guards stood idly by, all labor seemingly halted. Godric noted the mess of wooden logs draping the sides of the raised motte and wondered what in Valhalla had happened here. He didn’t know why Richard had summoned him; he hoped the reason had nothing to do with this God-forsaken mess. However, he appreciated the chance to finally meet the notorious Norman in person, whom he had only seen from afar in the shire court until now.

He soon found himself standing in the lord’s hall, a meager wooden building which Godric assumed was temporary. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. Then he discerned the large shape sitting at the table through the candlelight. Richard FitzScrob’s dark eyes stared at him from a long, bony face, composed of a drooping mouth and thick furrowed eyebrows. The man’s short haircut only emphasized the hugeness of his skull and the thickness of his overall frame. The lord was large without being fat, and Godric admired that in a man who had trouble getting around.

Godric had met various kings, earls, and chiefs in his lifetime. Nonetheless, he had never been very good with formalities. Perhaps because he had never cared for authority.

He found himself bowing awkwardly. “Lord Richard.”

“Godric Eadricson. Or is it Thorkellson?”

Godric’s eye narrowed. He had tried to come clean with his identity years ago. Members of the royal court had only known him as “Thorkellson” during the reign of King Canute, when Godric pretended to be Thorkell’s son Harald. If Richard bothered to voice the question, he probably intended to make a point: he knew more about Godric than his simple thegnship in Shrewsbury. “My father was Eadric Streona,” Godric said at last, straightening and looking Richard in the eye. “Why have you called me here?”

Richard stared back at him a moment, as if to make sure they understood one another. The only thing Godric understood was that Richard had already managed to irritate him. But Richard nodded, as if satisfied, then waved for the guard to leave the room. “Please have a seat, Godric.”

Godric gladly obeyed, for the long ride here had left his knee aching. He appreciated a goblet of wine from Richard even more, which Richard poured and handed to him. Godric drained the cup in a few gulps.

When he set down the empty chalice, he found Richard still staring across the table at him, his own wine untouched. “I called you here because I have a strange situation and I’m not sure how to solve it. I hear you are a … capable man.” (more…)

Last Tales of Mercia 6: Hereward the Outlaw

Young Hereward (later known as “the Wake”) finds out that a Norman castle is being built in Shrewsbury and rides with a group of rowdy boys to cause trouble.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

*

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.

**

So when young, and as he grew older, [Hereward] advanced in boldness day by day, and while still a youth excelled in manly deeds. In the meantime he spared nobody whom he thought to be in any way a rival in courage or in fighting. In consequence he often caused strife among the populace and commotion among the common people. As a result of this he made his parents hostile towards him; for because of his deeds of courage and boldness they found themselves quarreling with their friends and neighbors every day, and almost daily having to protect their son with drawn swords and weapons when he returned from sport or from fighting, from the local inhabitants who acted like enemies and tyrants because of him.

Gesta Herwadi, Chapter II

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BOURNE, LINCOLNSHIRE

1054 A.D.

After washing his face, Hereward studied his reflection in the water of the stream. His face pleased him, the jaw broad and sturdy, the lips thick, the nose gently curved, and his pale eyes sparkling with slightly different shades of blue and gray. His sandy hair fell in a sleek swoop to his shoulders. Though only eighteen, he already stood as tall as most older men and his bare shoulders spread thickly with muscle. He had an appearance to make women swoon and men run in terror. He grinned with satisfaction.

Then he recalled that lately, people had been calling him the terror of the city of Bourne, and maybe all of Lincolnshire. They tired of his pranks and brawling. Hereward believed that such complaints arose out of envy. They feared that one day he would grow up to become more powerful than his father. And perhaps his parents feared this, too. For rather than reward him for his victories, they only punished him—which made Hereward even more determined to act out against them.

His reflection shattered as the water splashed. Hereward glanced around for the culprit. Further down the stream, some members of Hereward’s gang played in the water, but they were not close enough to be the source of the disturbance. Altogether, about twenty young men languished with Hereward by the babbling stream. Ash and elm trees spotted the surrounding fields, yielding swathes of shadow across the bright green grass. A few of the boys had taken off their tunics to bask in the warm summer sunshine. Others cooled their skin in the waters of the stream. The rest tried to find naps in the shade of the trees. Like Hereward, many of their heads still ached from drinking too much the night before, so they covered their eyes and searched for oblivion.

Hereward could now discern a thrown rock sinking to the bottom of the riverbed; someone had thrown it at him, thus causing the splash. Suspecting one of his comrades of foul play, Hereward turned to identify an unexpected visitor, Martin, as the culprit. The tall, lanky fellow already had another rock poised for throwing.

Hereward stood and roared with anger. “Martin!”

Martin “Lightfoot,” a man whose long legs were both fast and silent, must have sneaked past the wine-sick boys easily. He shouldn’t be here. Eager to atone for their negligence, a few of the fellows pounced on Martin, grabbing his fancy tunic of red linen and tugging at his dagger-laden belt.

Martin probably could have run away from the boys if he wished. Instead he endured their rough handling, meeting Hereward’s scowl with a shameless smile. The expression came out looking like an uncomfortable distortion of his long, gangly features.

“Go home, Martin,” snarled Hereward. “I’ve no need of my parent’s spy.”

“And I’ve no need of a pompous bully,” said the fleet-footed gentleman. “Nonetheless, Lord Leofric wanted me to come here and give you a warning. He heard about your fight last night with poor Eadwig. Apparently, you bashed the man’s face so brutally both his eyes are swollen shut and he hasn’t climbed out of his bed this morning.”

“It was a fair fight,” said Hereward, though he could hardly remember it. In truth, he had probably been the one at a disadvantage, for he was so besotted with drink at the time. A few of his comrades echoed their agreement.

“In any case, if you piss on the pride of a single more Bourne-man, your father will ensure you can never do it again. For now, Lord Leofric commands that you and all of your companions go home, not to reconvene until further notice.”

“Not to reconvene, eh?” Hereward swaggered closer, balling up one fist and considering where to place it on Martin’s body. Unfortunately, his knuckles still hurt from last night.

“Peace, Master Hereward.” Martin maintained his smug smile. “I am only the messenger. And if you wish to give your father a message in return, I will gladly carry it for you.”

Hereward considered this, his fingers unwinding. He glanced around at his comrades. They all looked uneasy, for a threat from Lord Leofric—normally a cool-tempered man—was no laughing matter. “In that case, tell Father we have followed his wishes. We will not cause trouble here again any time soon.”

“If that’s true, then God bless you, my lord. However, I require convincing. I must bear the blame if my message is false. You understand.” His smile spread wider, revealing some yellowed teeth.

Hereward sighed and searched for his belt, discarded by the river with his tunic. On it, he found an unfamiliar pouch—no doubt taken from Eadwig the night before. He weighed its contents, took a few coins for himself, then threw the rest to Martin. Martin deftly freed one of his arms to catch it, revealing he might have escaped at any moment if he chose.

“And how will I explain your absence?” asked Martin, dropping the purse into his tunic.

“Tell him I went hunting and I want to be alone for awhile.”

“Very well. Happy hunting, then.” Without further ado, Martin slipped from his captors and ran off, his long legs a blur across the grass.

Martin’s message should have left Hereward furious, but in fact he felt liberated. For a long time he had suffered his mother’s and father’s wavering disapproval and insufficient reprimands. Now that they gave him no other choice, he would show them he could break free of their yanking leash.

Hereward looked over his gang and his heart stirred with pride. These boys would follow him anywhere and do whatever he asked of them. They were not yet housecarls in title, but someday they would be, and when that day came, Hereward would indeed surpass his father in the possession of men’s loyalty.

“Listen up, boys!” His robust voice swept forcefully across the field. “I have an idea.” (more…)

Last Tales of Mercia 5: Osgifu the Sister

Osgifu finds out that her sister, Elwyna, may soon be hanged for murder. She faces a hard decision of whether to leave matters to fate or oppose the Normans.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

*

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.

**

SHREWSBURY, SHROPSHIRE

1053 A.D.

Two warm, sturdy arms seemed to reach from Osgifu’s dreams before closing gently around her. A smile lit her face as her body stirred to wakefulness. She felt the warm rays of sunshine beaming through the window shutters. The musky aroma of her husband, Godric, washed over her as he pulled her close and kissed her neck. The coarse stubble around his lips brushed her tender skin. She laughed and squirmed in his grip. “That tickles!”

In response, he kissed her again and tightened his hold on her. She struggled playfully, lashing him with her long red hair, then using her predicament as an excuse to turn around and face him.

At first glance, Godric looked almost boyish in the gentle light of the sun rise. His blue eye glittered mischievously. Short golden hairs shone upon his chin, a pleasant contrast to the dark roots of hair from his forehead. His long brown hair paled easily in the sunlight, which explained why it had almost been blond when she first saw him return from the land of Jomsvikings. The memory made her heart pound and her blood warm; she remembered how handsome he had been that day when she saw him in a Lundenburg church, still in his teen years but already a man in every conceivable way. She had been taken with him ever since, despite the fact he had cursed and grumbled in the house of God, and even voiced his intention to murder someone.

Now forty-five, Godric was still as handsome as ever, though many years of war and hardship had certainly taken their toll. Osgifu reached up and ran her hands through his hair, which had always been a blend of browns and yellows; now it also carried streaks of gray. Next her fingers brushed over his shoulder and torso, jagged with scars. Then her touch trailed back up his chest, over the jut of his throat, towards the knot of scars on one side of his face that had once been his right eye.

He reached up and grabbed her hand, stopping its ascent. “Osgifu,” he said simply. Then he pushed her down and rolled on top of her.

He smothered her laughter with a kiss, quickly transforming her mirth into a new sensation entirely. The weight of his body enveloped her, pinning her, so that her every attempt to escape only increased her contact with him and made her a more willing captive. She sighed with release as he pushed his hips against hers, making his urgency evident, and trailed kisses down her neck. He propped himself with one arm, his muscles rippling down its girth, as he reached to free himself with the other.

“Mother … ?”

Godric froze, making them all too aware of the sound of the door as it swung open, then the pitter-patter of a boy’s little feet.

“EDRIC!” Godric’s cry of rage seemed to shatter the rest of the world into silence. Osgifu caught only a glimpse of Edric’s red curls trailing behind him as he turned and ran. Then Godric jumped up, pulling on a pair of trousers with incredible speed. “So much for building our own room!” he snarled, and lunged after his fleeing son.

Osgifu sighed, trying to replace her own disappointment with sympathy for nine-year-old Edric. She listened to the echoes of Godric’s yelling through the door as she hastened to pull on her own dress. “Best go easy on him, Godric!” she called. “I’m getting too old to conceive another child!”

Any further jests died on her tongue as soon as she stepped into the main hall and saw why Edric had interrupted them in the first place.

A strange man cowered near the door of the hall. He had scraggly hair and raggedy clothes, and Osgifu doubted he had bathed or eaten a good meal in months. The stranger stared at Godric with terrified eyes, yet refused to budge from his spot.

The expression on Godric’s face was far more terrifying. Shirtless and bristling with muscle, Godric looked prepared to murder the man with his bare hands. Without a doubt, the two men knew one another.

“Edric.” Osgifu crouched and reached for her son, whom Godric had forgotten in the presence of the intruder. Edric gladly ran to his mother’s arms. His face was red from the effort of not crying and he trembled in her grasp.

“I’m sorry!” he wailed. “But that man came in and I didn’t know what to do!”

“You did the right thing, Edric.” Osgifu held him close, shielding him as she walked towards her husband.

“Go back to our room, Osgifu.” Godric spoke without looking at her, his voice a low growl.

“I will not,” she said, even as her legs quaked beneath her. Then she fixed her gaze on the stranger. “Please, tell us who you are and what you want.”

Godric snorted. “You won’t get a response from him. He doesn’t talk.”

Only Edric’s weight against Osgifu’s arms gave her the strength to stay standing. Her head spun dizzily. Years ago, when Osgifu left a nunnery and agreed to marry Godric, she did so with the understanding that he would be honest and true to her in all things. For that reason he had told her everything about his first marriage with Osgifu’s sister, Elwyna. He had described a slave that didn’t speak yet somehow managed to start an affair with Elwyna while Godric was away from home. “So this is Dumbun,” she gasped.

Godric finally turned and looked at her. His one eye gleamed dangerously even as his face pleaded with her. “Please, Osgifu. Leave us alone.”

“I can’t do that.”

Godric had tried to adopt a peaceful way of life once he married her, but Osgifu knew certain urges would never go away. It was a miracle Dumbun had survived Godric’s original discovery of the affair in the first place. Her instincts assured her that if she left the room now, she would return to find a dead body.

She turned her attention back to Dumbun. “Is this about my sister?” she asked. “Is Elwyna all right?”

Dumbun bowed his head and shook it slowly.

“Oh God.” Overwhelmed, Osgifu released Edric. “Go outside now,” she bade him. “Do your chores.”

Edric seemed all too happy to obey, for by doing so he could flee his father’s wrath as well as the strange man standing near the doorway. He scurried outside and vanished.

“You look nearly starved,” said Osgifu to Dumbun. “Why don’t you take a seat and I’ll get you some bread.”

Dumbun made a slight movement toward the table, his desperation apparent. Then Godric pounced. He grabbed Dumbun’s shoulders while jabbing upwards with his knee. He struck Dumbun deep in the belly, then shoved him to the floor. A little groan escaped the slave’s throat as he dropped, his body as limp as a puppet with its strings cut.

“This man does not get to eat at my table,” snarled Godric. Then his hand curled into a fist. He crouched to land another blow.

“Godric, no! This is about my sister!” Osgifu’s hands on Godric’s back were the only successful deterrent from further violence. He stopped and turned to look at her, eyes blazing with rage he could not restrain. But the longer he stared at Osgifu, the more his anger faded. “If he can’t eat at the table,” she said, “then he will eat outside.”

Godric’s tension unwound beneath her touch. His hand uncurled and fell to his side. He closed his eyes, as if to stop himself from looking at Dumbun, while he stood and turned away.

“I want him gone before noon.” Godric’s voice was weak with defeat. “Or I’ll get rid of him myself.”

*

After several attempts to communicate with Dumbun, Osgifu sympathized with Godric’s urge to bludgeon the man to death. She knew that Dumbun could make sounds with his throat, so why didn’t he speak? She prayed that God would give her patience as she fed Dumbun bread, gave him a warm seat near the outdoor kitchens, and tried to pull information from him.

Osgifu regretted agreeing to take Dumbun outside. The winter chill hung heavily in the air, and to make matters worse, a fog had rolled in to choke the sunshine. Frost remained glittering on the grass well into mid-morning. Even when Osgifu lit a fire, Dumbun kept trembling as if the cold had settled deep in his bones. She gave him a blanket and tried to think of some new way to learn his message.

Finally, she worked up the courage to ask him the most pertinent question. “Is Elwyna alive?”

Dumbun nodded.

A small surge of relief rewarded Osgifu, though her stomach remained knotted with fear. “Is she ill?”

He shook his head.

“So … she is in some sort of trouble?”

Nod.

“Do the two of you need money?”

He hesitated. Without affirming or denying this, he looked pointedly to the heavens, then clasped his hands together as if praying. Then he brushed his forehead, rippling his fingers like water.

“She needs the mercy of God.”

Dumbun nodded fervently.

Elwyna felt ridiculous, but at least this method of questioning had begun to yield results. “Has she done something? Has she committed a crime?”

He lowered his head sorrowfully, then nodded.

“How bad is this crime? Theft? Cheating?” No response. “Murder?

Another nod.

“Dear God.” Osgifu made the sign of the cross. “Whom did she kill?”

Dumbun considered how to respond. Then he grabbed his scraggly locks of hair and pulled them upward. He scraped his other hand up the back of his skull, as if shaving the hair from it.

“A Norman!” It seemed too horrible to be true. But why else would Dumbun come all this way and dare showing his face to Godric? “Do they have her? Will they kill her?”

Nod.

Her mind raced and she paced across the frosty grass as she considered what to do. She certainly did not have the money to pay the werigald of a Norman. Nor would she risk her own neck in some desperate attempt to save her wayward sister. The two of them had not spoken in years. Usually, Osgifu tried her best not to think about Elwyna. But now, knowing that her blood-kin faced death, Osgifu knew that at the very least, she must face her sister once more.

The distant thunder of horse-hooves forced her to make a decision. She looked through the fog and discerned the the shape of two riders approaching; that would be Godric returning with his Danish housecarl, Faran. Faran liked to act and dress like a Viking, even though he had never been one. The two men had gone on an errand while waiting for Osgifu and Dumbun to conclude business.

“You must go.” Osgifu stood and nudged Dumbun frantically. “Meet me at Ethelbert’s church. It’s on the road south of here. I will try go there as soon as I can. Now go!”

Godric surely spotted Dumbun’s figure as it ran off the opposite direction, but he graciously pretended not to. Perhaps a ride through his lands had helped to cool his temper. Godric put his horse in the stables and then made his way towards her. Anxiety wrung Osgifu’s nerves like a dish rag. How much should she tell Godric, if anything? She would have to explain her trip somewhat. But should she tell him about Elwyna? Godric had never been in love with Elwyna; nonetheless, they had been married for about eight years. Surely he deserved to know about her misfortune.

And if he cared about Elwyna’s well-being, then what? Osgifu had resolved to visit her sister. But what lengths might Godric go to if he chose to interfere? Her stomach flipped while considering the responsibilities. Godric had murdered three kings and an archbishop in his time, all without consequence. If he made up his mind to help Elwyna, who knew what he might do?

He seemed to share her anxiety as he approached. Perhaps he feared what she might say as greatly as she feared saying it. They stood at a distance for awhile, letting a silence stretch between them.

“I have to go see my sister,” blurted Osgifu at last. “She’s in trouble. One more visit with her might be my last.”

Godric avoided his wife’s gaze, perhaps to hide his own emotions. “I see.” He ground his teeth. They both waited, for what she didn’t know. A lone bird cawed in the distance. Godric stepped closer, though he still would not look at her. Finally he reached out and gripped her shoulder. “Do you want my help?”

“No.”

He gave one curt nod. She thanked him silently for accepting her decision without debate. “When will you leave?”

“Now, I suppose. Though I suspect I won’t be back until tomorrow.”

“Where will you go?”

She hesitated.

A new edge sharpened his voice. “Will you be in danger?”

“No,” she said quickly, hoping that God forgave her if such a statement was a lie. Walking amongst Normans who held her sister captive for murder would certainly not be “safe.” But if Godric knew that, he would find some way of watching her from afar.

She remembered that Richard’s son, Osbern, had once met Edric at a shire’s court. Both of them young boys at the time, they had played together and enjoyed each other’s company. Perhaps she could change the tone of the situation entirely. “In fact, I’d like to bring Edric with me.”

Edric?

“Yes.” She took a deep breath, determining not to deceive Godric any more than necessary. “I will be going to the castle of Lord Richard FitzScrob.”

“The Norman!

Osgifu nodded calmly. “You have always said he is our ally, as he is King Edward’s. And you may recall that his son Osbern met Edric at the shire court not so long ago. They got along well together.”

“They battered each other with sticks,” Godric growled. Then he sighed with defeat. “But they did seem to enjoy it.”

Osgifu reached up and brushed Godric’s cheek with her fingers. “Trust me, Godric. I can handle this situation.”

She felt Godric’s jaw clenching under her touch. “I don’t want Edric to meet Elwyna.”

“If he does, he’ll know only that she’s my sister.” She realized her hands were trembling and she worried that Godric would notice. She fell forward into the warmth of her husband’s arms. “I love you,” she whispered.

His lips brushed her hair. “I love you, too.” His hands gripped her firmly.

*

Edric was very excited to travel to Richard’s castle and see young Lord Osbern again. However, he sensed the graveness of his task when Osgifu explained Elwyna’s predicament, and he proved a quiet riding companion.

At Ethelbert’s church, Osgifu spoke once more to Dumbun and verified Elwyna’s location. By then the courage she had shown to Godric was fading, and her dread nearly overwhelmed her. She felt as if she would walk straight into the enemy’s nest by visiting Richard’s castle. But she nodded with resolve and asked the priest to pray for Elwyna. Dumbun would stay at the church, for Osgifu suspected his presence would only bring trouble. Osgifu and Edric would make haste to Richard’s castle, if only so Osgifu could say her goodbyes. What she might do after that, she didn’t know.

Before she left the church, she knelt by the altar and prayed.

She had asked little of God over the last few years. Ever since she broke her vows at the abbey and ran off to marry Godric, she felt as if she did not deserve to request God’s help. Sometimes, she consoled herself with the possibility that God had always intended for her to marry Godric. At the time, she believed with complete certainty that she made a righteous decision. She felt that if God had given her this life to save anyone, that person was Godric, who needed her love more than anyone on earth. And Godric was undoubtedly a man of significance. His blade had shaped the fates of several countries, though many people would never learn his name. And if not for her, he might have shaped them further. She wanted to believe that because of her union with Godric, he had learned the power of forgiveness and put away his axe forever.

She didn’t always convince herself of her own righteousness, however. So while she continued to show her devotion to God whenever she got the chance, she rarely dared to impose upon Him. Now, for the sake of her sister, she did so.

“Dear Holy Father, who saved Daniel from the lion’s den, please show compassion for Elwyna, who is in dire need of forgiveness. Please free her from the Normans and end the cycle of hate if you can find it in your will to do so. Amen.”

Once she finished, Osgifu and Edric rode for Richard’s castle.

When Osgifu first glimpsed the walls of the structure, she thought it may not be so different from any other Anglo-Saxon stronghold. Then she saw the large mound of earth rising up from the middle of the monstrosity. She watched slaves carrying rocks and glimpsed the breadth of the space within the walls, like its own little town. She wondered how all of this would look once set with stones, especially the man-made hill that seemed like the foundation of something gigantic. She feared that when all the pieces came together, the castle would truly be a sight to behold.

“So this is a castle?” Edric’s blue eyes glittered with wonder.

“It certainly will be,” Osgifu murmured.

She crossed a wooden bridge over a deep, gaping ditch. Her horse stirred anxiously beneath her. They approached a large gatehouse, and though unfinished, it looked quite imposing. Stones and white mortar comprised the bottom walls and led up to a second floor towering over the walls.

A Norman guard stepped forward to bar their passage.

Osgifu dismounted and motioned for Edric to do the same, hoping this would make them look less intrusive. She pet her horse’s neck with calming strokes. “Good day to you. I am Osgifu, daughter of the deceased thegn Lindsey, wife of Thegn Godric Eadricson. I am here to see my sister, Elwyna.”

The Norman did not seem to recognize any of the names she threw at him, but he must have determined that she was a woman of some significance. He scratched his head, then said, “Un moment.

He left and came back with another Norman, perhaps of higher rank. The man had short brown hair, but Elwyna suspected it was longer than most Normans’, who usually trimmed the back of the skull as close to the skin as possible. Soft brown locks fell long enough to frame this man’s eyes, which looked at her with the smallest hint of friendliness.

“I am Sir Ralph,” he said. “You say you’re here to see Elwyna?”

“Yes.”

Ralph looked down at her companion. “And this is …?”

“My son, Edric. He’s acquainted with Osbern FitzRichard.”

“Oh is he?” Ralph nodded. “You’ll have to leave any weapons here at the gate. Then you may follow me.”

“Thank you.”

After all the rumors she’d heard about Normans, Osgifu could not help but worry that she would never again see the weapons they handed over. Nonetheless, Ralph’s request was reasonable, so she complied and convinced Edric to give up his little seax. They followed Ralph through the gates.

The inner grounds looked especially desolate to Osgifu. Due to all the construction, the earth was lifeless and uneven, prodding her sharply through her thin leather boots. Filthy Anglo-Saxons looked over at her from their work on the walls, their shoulders hunched from the back-breaking labor. She wondered what they had done to deserve this fate, if anything.

She wondered if it had been a mistake to bring Edric when she saw the look on his face. The state of the laborers seem to shock and even frighten him.

She did not yet see her sister, but she realized with a mixture of joy and dismay that she recognized some of the workers. Several of them had worked the lands around the Abbey of Saint Mary’s which she briefly supervised as abbess. They were kind and honest folk, and it warmed her heart to see them again, though she regretted the circumstances. She had not bothered to visit many of her old friends and acquaintances after she left the abbey, for she had felt too ashamed for breaking her vows. Her guilt would only deepen if she ignored them now.

“Excuse me,” she said to the knight leading her. “May I say hello to someone briefly?”

“Eh?” Ralph didn’t look very pleased with the fact that she knew some of the slaves. But she gave him an innocent smile, and after a moment, he nodded.

Osgifu made her way to a section of the walls where men and women were scooping shale from the ditches and then carrying it to the motte.

“Alfwaru?”

The woman looked up with eyes that feared some sort of reprimand or bad news. She was younger than Osgifu, but her back sagged with exhaustion, and harsh conditions had made her skin splotched and weathered. Osgifu stared back at her in silence, trying to hide a reaction of disgust.

“Abbess Osgifu?”

To Osgifu’s profound relief, Alfwaru said her name not with dismay, but happiness. A smile pulled at her cheeks and made her dark eyes sparkle. She stepped forward to embrace Osgifu. Then she remembered herself, and her fleeting joyfulness faded away.

“Alfwaru, it is so good to see you again,” said Osgifu hastily. “Though I wonder how you ended up here, working on the Norman’s castle? Do you still live in that little cabin next to the brook?” She tried to phrase the question gently, but she could not ignore the truth.

Alfwaru bowed her head grimly. “St Mary’s Abbey was never the same after you left. The next abbess was incompetent. We had sick livestock and bad crops. The abbess lost money and sold some of her lands back to the king—including the cabin where my husband and I lived. We were already in a poor state, and once we had to start paying taxes …”

The woman lost her will to say the rest. Osgifu reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Alfwaru. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Of course, Abbess. You can pray for me.”

Osgifu’s throat tightened. “I’m not an abbess anymore, Alfwaru.”

“Maybe not. But you’re still Osgifu, the woman with the purest heart I’ve ever known.

Osgifu could hardly explain the sensation of solace that washed suddenly over her, as if a burden lifted from her shoulders she hadn’t even known was there. Today, she had finally worked up the courage to ask for something from God. Now, another person requested her voice of entreaty. God seemed to be telling her, ever so gently, that he would listen to Osgifu’s prayers, and Elwyna wasn’t the only person that needed them.

“I will pray for you,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper at first. Then she looked up and saw that several more Anglo-Saxons were looking at her. “I’ll pray for all of you!”

“God bless Lady Osgifu of Saint Mary’s!” cried Alfwaru.

“God bless you, Lady.”

“God bless you.”

Osgifu did not know how to react to the people suddenly smiling and bowing their heads to her, or looking to her with hope. She hoped her face did not betray the fear she felt—fear that she might somehow let them down.

She became all too aware of the presence of Ralph looming nearby, his boots creaking in the dirt as he shifted his weight, the shadow of his sword casting a line across the rocks. When she turned to look at him, he had his arms crossed over his chest and a heavy frown on his face.

“Finished?” he asked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

She fell in step next to Ralph and Edric once more. Edric was as quiet as Osgifu had ever seen him and she wondered what thoughts ran through his mind. His reaction to the castle seemed a combination of admiration and disgust. Ralph led them to a dining hall near the large hill of dirt, then showed them inside.

She expected to come face to face with Richard FitzScrob, lord of the castle. She knew he was a very tall man that walked on crooked feet. But instead she saw young Osbern, perhaps only twelve or thirteen years old, sitting proudly at the head of the table. Next to him sat an older gentleman wearing a long tunic and sword. On the table, candles flickered amongst fresh bowls of steaming pottage. “I am Osbern FitzRichard,” said the boy, even as he wiped his greasy mouth. Osgifu struggled to interpret his accented English. “My father is busy. Can I help you with something?”

“Hello Osbern. It is nice to meet you formally. Perhaps you remember my son, Edric?”

Osbern stared curiously at the nine-year-old beside her. Edric blinked back with wide, gaping eyes.

“Oh yes.” Osbern sneered. “I remember besting you in a stick-fight.”

Edric’s fists clenched, and at last he found his voice. “You were a lot bigger than me!” Osgifu smiled. She could still sense a boyish camaraderie between the two of them. But Osbern was still a lot bigger than Edric.

“Perhaps you should have accounted for that before challenging me to a game,” retorted Osbern. Then he sat up in his chair, eager to prove himself further.

Osgifu bowed her head. “Thank you for seeing us, Osbern. As you may recall, I am Osgifu, wife of Thegn Godric Eadricson. Unfortunately, the woman accused of murder, Elwyna, is my sister. I wish to see her.”

“No,” said Osbern. “You may go now.” He returned to eating his stew, the slightest leer of triumph on his lips.

Osgifu fought against a rising wave of despair. Perhaps bringing Edric had been a bad idea. Osbern wished to show off in front of him. Desperately, she caught the gaze of the man sitting next to Osbern. He stared back with an expression of fear and surprise.

“Thegn Godric?” asked the older man. “Son of Eadric Streona?”

“Eadric Streona?” echoed Ralph.

Osgifu nodded.

Qui?” said Osbern.

Ignoring him, the man gulped and rose unsteadily to his feet. “I am Sir Fulbert. The man your sister killed was my squire, Drogo. But I did not think the girl had any family other than her dumb brother.”

Dumb brother? Osgifu wondered just how many lies her sister was telling these days. “I imagine she did not want myself or my husband involved.” She sensed Fulbert’s anxiety and wondered how deeply it ran. Godric had gotten away with his crimes because they remained secret until they no longer mattered. Once Edward became king, a few people suspected Earl Goodwin’s involvement in the death of Harald Harefoot. The son of Canute had been found in a river with his head severed from the neck. From there, one could easily draw the connection to Godric, whom Goodwin had hired for the job. One might also connect Eadric Streona’s murder of Edmund Ironside with a trap to the little boy he had brought with him to Oxford—once again, Godric. Osgifu suspected that anyone who bothered to speculate on the deaths of several recent kings might suspect Godric’s involvement.

To further mystify Godric’s identity, he had once claimed to be the son of Thorkell the Tall before confessing that he was the bastard son of Eadric Streona. Eadric Streona was quickly becoming the most notorious traitor in recent history. Thorkell the Tall was remembered as one of the mightiest Jomsvikings the world had ever seen. No matter which version of Godric’s story one believed, the name of either father sent fear straight to people’s hearts.

Osgifu wished that she could make Godric’s past disappear. She certainly didn’t want to go stirring it up again. She resisted the urge to push these men’s fear of Godric further to her advantage. But she did not bother dispelling it. “I see no reason to involve my husband, either,” she said. “Unless there has been some sort of misunderstanding here. Can you explain to me how you came to suspect Elwyna of a crime?”

“I left her alone with Drogo in that little cabin of hers around sunset,” said Fulbert hoarsely. “She came out after nightfall and said that he had gone into a fit, collapsed, and died. But I’ve known Drogo for years. He was a healthy young man.”

“What reason would Elwyna have to kill him?” asked Osgifu.

Fulbert turned pale and didn’t answer.

The young lord Osbern looked around the room in puzzlement. “This is not court,” said Osbern. Then, to Sir Fulbert, “Is it?”

Sir Fulbert sank into his chair and stared grimly into the table.

“In that case, when will she get a trial?” Osgifu demanded.

Ralph stepped forward. “Soon enough. Lord Richard has been very busy. But he has shown considerable mercy to Elwyna by giving her work on the castle and feeding her in the meantime.”

“For that, I am grateful.” She also felt increasingly suspicious. “Now may I speak to her?”

“I said no!” snapped Osbern. “What if this one can do sorcery like her sister?”

“I assure you that’s not true,” said Osgifu. “In fact, I used to be an abbess.”

Fulbert and Ralph exchanged wary glances. Sir Fulbert said something to the young lord in Norman. Then the three of them argued briefly in their native tongue.

Osgifu waited anxiously. The discussion grew more heated, but she took comfort in the fact that Osbern seemed to be losing the fight. Finally, he declared in English, “Let them talk if you’re so determined. But if anything goes wrong, it’s your fault!”

He stood up, snorted loudly, and then stormed towards the door. For a young teenager, the thud of his boots—especially the one that dragged with a limp—sounded successfully intimidating. Nonetheless, Osgifu inwardly rejoiced. “Thank you, my lord.” She glanced curiously at Edric. “Perhaps the two of you would like to catch up in the meantime?”

Osbern scoffed, though Osgifu detected a flare of temptation in his gaze. “I have no time for child’s games.”

“Then perhaps you could show Edric around the castle?” She looked to her son. “Would you like that?”

Edric’s face lit up at the thought. “I would very much like that.”

“Very well,” said Osbern. He failed to hide the excitement in his own face. “Come with me, then.”

Osgifu turned to Ralph.

“This way,” said the knight with a sigh.

*

The Normans kept Elwyna tied up outside the stables when she was not hard at work on their castle. But even as Ralph led Osgifu closer, she did not immediately recognize the mud-sodden woman crouching on the dirt, her wrists worn bloody from ropes. So much dirt caked the prisoner’s hair that only upon close study did Osgifu see the golden-red strands winding down her shoulders. Her dress was ripped and unraveling, baring an unseemly amount of skin to any curious bystander. The gaps in her clothing also revealed the boniness of her frame, flesh practically sunken onto bone.

Osgifu stared deeply into the down-turned face, the little bumped nose, and the long red lashes. Only then did her mind connect this dirty shell of a woman to the spirited girl who had once been her sister. Without warning, sobs rose up to choke her throat. Tears pricked her eyes and she fell to her knees beside her sister.

“Oh, Elwyna!”

She wrapped her arms around the bony form and cried helplessly. Never would she have expected this sort of reaction from herself. Over the last few years, she had convinced herself that Elwyna deserved her fate as an adulteress living in exile. She had also forced herself to believe that Elwyna might have found some sort of peace living beyond the normal boundaries of society. Now she realized that had all been a daydream she indulged in order to deal with her own crushing guilt. It had been Osgifu’s fault that Godric had committed to marrying one of Lindsey’s daughters. And it had been Osgifu’s fault that Godric married Elwyna instead of Osgifu, the woman he loved, because Osgifu had run off to a nunnery. At the time, it had seem like a righteous and self-less decision. But in truth, she had never stopped to think how she would affect the lives of people who cared about her before making such a significant choice.

As if aware of the same truths, Elwyna did not respond for awhile, merely endured the weight of her sister’s sorrow. Then at last she leaned against Osgifu, returning the embrace in the only way possible with her arms bound behind her.

Osgifu pulled back and looked Elwyna in the eyes. Despite the condition of her body, Elwyna’s eyes blazed with vigor. “Why have you come here, Osgifu?”

“I needed to see you!” For a moment Osgifu was embarrassed by her own tears, by her own need validate that Elwyna’s situation was not entirely Osgifu’s fault. Perhaps her hidden guilt had largely contributed to this venture. She wanted to believe that Elwyna experienced some joy at the sight of her older sister. But perhaps Osgifu’s presence only brought her pain.

She heard the sound of Ralph shuffling in the dirt behind her, and she wished desperately that the Norman knight would leave her alone so she could speak to her sister in privacy. Perhaps it was too late for that. Too late for Osgifu to apologize for everything that had gone wrong.

So Osgifu took a breath and tried to contain her emotions. She attempted to focus only on how to move forward, rather than how to evaluate the past. She should not try to obtain privacy with Elwyna for the sake of having a heart-felt discussion. As Godric himself would say, what was done was done. But perhaps she should try to be alone with Elwyna for another reason.

“I need to speak privately with my sister.” Osgifu turned her tearful eyes toward Ralph.

“I can’t let you do that.” He looked aside to help harden his resolve.

“I understand that you must keep watch over us,” said Osgifu. “I only ask that you get far enough away that you cannot hear us. I want to hear my sister’s version of what happened, and I worry that she will not tell me everything if you stand listening.”

Ralph sighed. “Very well.” He made his way across the grounds. Osgifu watched all the while, and when she was satisfied, she nodded. The knight stopped far beyond the stables, where he could see but not hear her.

Osgifu turned back around and spoke before Elwyna had the chance. “If you really killed this man Drogo, I don’t want you to tell me. I don’t want that on my conscience. But I want you to tell me everything else.”

Elwyna scowled at her. “Why does it matter to you what I’ve been through?”

Osgifu tried to ignore the sting of that question. “I think I might be able to help.”

“It’s a bit late for you to be helping me, now isn’t it?”

Osgifu did not back down. She glared back at Elwyna and waited stubbornly until the younger woman gave in.

Elwyna sighed and sank back against the wall. “Dumbun and I built a cabin in the woods not too far from here. No one knew we were there until the two Normans came along. They ate our food, used our home like it belonged to them, and Drogo …” Her breath caught. Then she pursed her lips and spat contemptuously, “Drogo seemed to believe he could use me as his own, also.”

Osgifu’s stomach turned cold. “Did he … ?”

Elwyna gave a terse shake of her head. “No. I k—” She realized her mistake and reconsidered her words. “He died before he could go through with it.”

Osgifu shuddered as her own memories threatened to rise to the surface—memories of pain she had endured long ago, but could still sting as if she experienced it only yesterday. She had spent years burying the pain under layers of self-confidence and fortitude. Love and forgiveness had mostly healed the old wound. But never would she forget the feelings of humiliation, futility, and worthlessness that crippled her during and after the moments of her abuse.

“I understand why you might have … wanted to kill him,” said Osgifu. “Though I hope, for the sake of your own soul, that you leave punishment to our Holy Father. Realize that God wants us to forgive our enemies, not strike them back.”

“Or perhaps that’s what you tell yourself,” hissed Elwyna, “in order to deal with what happened to you.”

Osgifu did not reply, did not react. After a long stretch of silence, she wiped the last of her tears and looked away, contemplating the lack of emotions within her. Either Elwyna’s words struck too deeply to acknowledge, or Osgifu had made peace with this possibility long ago, without even realizing it. Whether her ideals of God’s will had been the reason she joined a nunnery after the incident or not, she had come to believe them, and Elwyna’s jab could not touch her.

Watching Osgifu’s calm face, Elwyna wilted. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

“Never mind. I still ask that you think about what I’ve said. If I am to to help you, I need to know that your heart is in the right place, first.”

Elywna’s lashes fluttered, afraid to hope. “You still mean to help me? But how …?”

“Elwyna. Do you ask God to forgive you for all your sins? Will you do so every day henceforth?”

The last of Elwyna’s defiance wore away. She sagged in her bonds, staring gloomily into the mud. “I do wish it had all happened differently. When he died, that look on his face … I wonder if he really deserved it.”

This admonition was enough for Osgifu. She reached out and clasped her sister’s arm. “But he died, and in the end, his death was God’s will.”

Elwyna looked back up uncertainly.

“Is it true that Drogo suffered no visible injury? Merely collapsed and died?”

“No visible injury at all. It is why they accused me of sorcery.”

“But I can vouch for you that you’re no sorceress. And as for his death, I think it’s quite clear that God struck him down because of the sin in his heart.”

Elwyna blinked back at her sister in surprise.

*

“How would you know?”

Ralph stood scratching his head, struggling to form a response to Osgifu’s bold proclamation. After speaking to Elwyna, she had walked straight up to him and announced that Drogo had not died at Elwyna’s hands, but God’s. They still stood in the middle of the castle courtyard, far from Ralph’s superiors. Osgifu almost felt guilty that she must take advantage of his kindness by putting him in such an awkward position. But she also knew that God might have placed him in her path for a reason.

“I know my sister,” Osgifu said firmly. “She would never harm another person without cause. And I think one can easily surmise, from the full description of what occurred that day, that she did not harm anyone at all.”

“Drogo’s dead!” Ralph declared, so loudly that he drew the attention of a few laborers nearby. As the sun fell and the sky darkened, most of them put down their tools and sat down to enjoy the last warm rays of sunshine. Now their attention meandered curiously to the red-headed Saxon woman arguing with a Norman knight.

“So he is. But he only has himself to blame.”

“Himself?

“Ask the man with him that day. Ask Sir Fulbert.” Hoping that her arm did not reveal the trembling of her body, Osgifu reached out and pointed. The older knight was walking out of the main hall. At the sight of her, he stopped and stared uncertainly.

Osgifu stood her ground. She remembered how Fulbert had been wary of her. Some of his anxiety came from recognizing the name of her husband. But Osgifu suspected that some fear might have come from his own uncertainty of what had happened the night Drogo died. Perhaps the two factors would combine to form a solution.

Reluctantly, Ralph waved to Sir Fulbert, who promptly walked over and fixed Osgifu with a guarded stare. “Is something wrong?”

“The lady wants to know why Drogo might be blamed for his own death,” said Ralph through gritted teeth.

Quoi?” Fulbert scowled at Osgifu, then launched suddenly into an angry torrent of Norman to his younger companion.

Osgifu did not let it last long. “English!” she yelled. “Unless you have something to hide from the rest of us?”

Her heart was hammering in her chest. She hadn’t planned any of this. Why had she said “us”? She glanced around and saw that many Anglo-Saxons were watching her. Some of them came closer to listen. Some of them whispered to each other, spreading her name. She felt as if power flowed through her, though she couldn’t explain where it came from, or whether she had carried it within herself all along. Either way, she felt as if she swam in a stream with a building current, growing stronger and stronger, and she had little choice but to trust where it led her.

Ralph gulped, noting the tension that had started to gather around them. “Fulbert was telling me that your sister had no right to live in that cabin. She was on Lord Richard’s land without his knowledge. She was lucky that they did not arrest her right away for not paying rent.”

“And I’m sure she lived there before Lord Richard came here.” Osgifu struggled to rein in a surge of anger. She was starting to understand why so many people spoke angrily of the Normans. They behaved as if all Anglo-Saxons were “lucky” the Normans let them do anything at all. “In any case, it seems to me that you have neglected giving her a trial and used her situation to add another laborer to your castle. Let’s not put it off any longer. Let us decide her fate, here and now.”

Sir Fulbert turned very red in the face, but could only make a weak retort. “Lord Richard is absent.”

“Then fetch his son, Osbern.”

Fulbert scoffed. “If it will get you red-headed girls out of my sight, then I will!

As Fulbert stormed away to get the young boy, Osgifu’s stomach turned. She wondered if she had not just done something foolish. The boy had not taken kindly to her and seemed very temperamental. But she trusted her instincts and waited as patiently as she could.

The teenaged lord looked irritated indeed as Fulbert practically dragged him into the courtyard. Edric trailed behind them, scowling. Both he and Osbern seemed agitated. Had the two of them fought together?

“What is going on here?” cried Osbern. Then, to Ralph, “I told you this was your problem!”

Edric hurried over to his mother, then stood next to her with his arms crossed over his chest. Edric and Osbern glared back at each other.

“Yes, my lord.” A wave of red crept up Ralph’s neck. “But we have delayed Elwyna’s trial, and perhaps we should get it over with.”

“In that case, go on and hang her. We already know she killed Drogo.”

A wave of dismay rolled through the gathering crowd. Osgifu felt its strength almost tangibly, and she knew then she had made the right decision by calling for Osbern. His ostentation would be his demise.

“We know nothing of the sort,” she declared. “We know that Sir Fulbert left Drogo and Elwyna alone in a room together. And we know that Drogo died without any visible wounds.”

“Sorcery,” said Osbern.

“I swear to our Lord in heaven that my sister is no sorceress.”

Alfwaru’s voice rose suddenly from the crowd. “And I believe her! Osgifu was once the abbess of Saint Mary’s! She was the most God-blessed woman I ever knew!”

A few voices rose to echo Alfwaru’s.

Osbern glared at them all irritably. “Is this what you call a trial?”

“In Engla-lond, we judge a person based on the merit of those who speak for her.”

“Then you have the word of a Norman knight against the word of a … you.” Osbern waved his hand at her helplessly. Osgifu smothered a flicker of sympathy for the boy. He seemed as if he did not really know what he was doing here, handing out judgment, and he resented his role entirely. Never mind. Osgifu did not particularly want to be here either. But she would do what she must for her sister.

Once again, Osbern’s words worked against him. The voices in favor of Osgifu rose louder. Sir Fulbert glowered darkly, all too aware of his own lack of popularity.

Osgifu knew this was her moment. “And why would Sir Fulbert wish to admit the truth? He left Drogo with Elwyna so that Drogo could force her into bed. He doesn’t want to admit that his companion’s heart had spoiled with sin. For Elwyna had no need to lay a hand upon Drogo. God smote him down as punishment for the greed and lust already poisoning his body!”

The crowd of Anglo-Saxons roared in agreement. Some of them picked up their daily tools and held them high. Anger simmered in their air even as the sun’s warm sunshine faded with its fall.

Osbern shifted nervously. For a moment, his big brown eyes widened with fear. Then his hand twitched at the sword on his hip. His energy shifted from fear to anger. “I’ll tell you how we hold trials in Normandy,” he yelled, loud enough to silence everyone, though his voice screeched slightly. “We judge a person by those who will fight for him!”

Osgifu could not hold back a smile. He had laid a trap for himself even better than any she might have invented. “Do you really want me to bring forth my champion?”

Silence fell over the mud-ridden camp. Osgifu stared calmly back at the Normans while she watched the blood drain from their faces—except for Osbern, who only seemed to grow more puzzled.

“Well then? Who?”

“Don’t do it, my lord.” Fulbert’s voice was hoarse, his shoulders sagging with defeat.

Osbern clearly hated the fact everyone seemed to know something he didn’t, and he only grew angrier. “That’s for me to decide! Who is this champion?”

Ralph gave Osbern an imploring look. He walked closer to the young lord and lowered his voice, though Osgifu could still hear him. “My lord, her husband is Lord Godric Eadricson. He is a dear ally to King Edward, and might have been responsible for his rise to the throne. We should not make him an enemy.”

Osbern’s fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides, his dark eyes glaring at Osgifu until they seemed to bore a hole. But he was running out of arguments.

“It’s not worth it,” added Sir Fulbert. Then, more loudly, “This wench has been of little help to us in building our castle, anyway. She is mostly a drain on our resources.”

This point seemed to sway Osbern more than any other. “Damn right she’s not worth it!” He spat forcefully into the dirt, no doubt as he had seen many older men do to greater effect. “We’ve wasted enough time on this already. The skinny woman’s no use to us. And I doubt she ever could have killed a strong squire such as Drogo, anyway. If God simply chose that moment to take Drogo to heaven, then so be it. Get her out of here, Saxon, if she’s so important to you. But never let her set foot in Father’s lands again, or she will hang!”

Osgifu did not realize how long she had been holding her breath until she finally let it out. There was no resounding applause, no joyous celebration—only a few murmurs of relief. But she knew that she had finally done it. She had helped her sister get another chance. In the meantime, she felt as if she had acquired one of her own.

**

Releasing NEXT (July 24, 2012)—

Young Hereward (later known as “the Wake”) finds out that a Norman castle is being built in Shrewsbury and rides with a group of rowdy boys to cause trouble.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

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. A full list of sources can be found on the right column of this blog.

Last Tales of Mercia 4: Ralph the Knight

When a fight between a Norman and a Saxon gets out of hand, Sir Ralph must employ the help of a knight named Geoffrey to cover up the unfortunate incident.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

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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.

**

And [the king’s council] declared Archbishop Robert utterly an outlaw, and all the Frenchmen, because they had made most of the difference between Godwin, the earl, and the king.”

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1052

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SHROPSHIRE

1052 A.D.

“To Sir Ralph, the newest knight of Engla-lond!”

A few cheers resounded through the smoky Saxon tavern. Most of the occupants remained quiet, choosing to send sullen looks in Ralph’s direction rather than celebrate. Anglo-Saxons outnumbered Normans here, and Anglo-Saxons did not enjoy watching another Norman gain power. Ralph knew this and even tried to respect the fact. That did not stop him from feeling as if all the world should share in his glory.

He had always hoped to become a knight one day, but today’s promotion had caught him by surprise. Ralph had accompanied Lord Richard FitzScrob and a few other men to confront an Anglo-Saxon family for disobedience. Their son owed Richard labor on the castle, but he had repeatedly fled from his duties—presumably with his parents’ help. Richard FitzScrob and his men had been prepared to punish the family severely. But Ralph surprised everyone by talking with the young fellow, whom he knew from a previous occasion, and convincing him to submit peacefully to Richard’s will. After that, the family had also complied.

Truly enough, Ralph befriended Anglo-Saxons whenever he had the chance, because he saw no reason not to. He liked Engla-lond. He liked meeting men who had once been Vikings; after all, the Normans’ own ancestors were Vikings. He liked the air of independence and freedom that so many English inhabitants exuded, perhaps due to so many years of warfare. The men and women here seemed to serve their lords because they chose freely to do so—or at least they liked to pretend as much. And Ralph liked that about them. He was already starting to grow his hair out like most Saxons and was even considering a beard. He could speak fluid English and only spoke Norman if the occasion demanded.

Lord Richard had been so pleased by Ralph’s negotiations that on the way home, he announced his intention to knight Ralph the next time they visited King Edward—which would be in a fortnight.

“I am happy for you, Ralph.” This from Sir Fulbert, who sat across from Ralph and sipped slowly at some wine. The older man’s eyes wandered suspiciously to the nearby Saxons, as if expecting one of them to jump out and kill him at any moment. Ralph could not blame him. Barely a week ago, Sir Fulbert’s squire, Drogo, had died mysteriously on a scouting trip through the woods. Fulbert claimed that a wild red-headed wench had killed the squire, perhaps by some means of sorcery. The accused woman, Elwyna, had been shackled and put to work at Richard’s castle while awaiting trial. Ralph had caught glimpses of her a couple times and didn’t doubt her guilt. “But don’t grow too accustomed to leniency,” said Fulbert. “It can get you in trouble with these people.”

Ralph shrugged. “I don’t think I’m lenient,” he said. “I’ve just made a lot more friends than the rest of you bastards.”

Some of the men laughed; even Fulbert gave a little smile. The only one who made no response at all was Geoffrey, a knight who had said nothing all evening. Ralph wondered why the man had come out to celebrate in the first place. He rarely spoke, barely drank, and in most ways was Ralph’s opposite. If Lord Richard thought of Ralph as a friend to the Saxons, he probably saw Geoffrey as their most feared enemy. Geoffrey got nearly complete obedience from all of his tenants, purportedly because he terrified them.

Geoffrey’s silence tended to make Ralph uneasy. He wondered how often he would work with this man from now on. The land Ralph would acquire as part of his knighthood lay just next to Geoffrey’s. Ralph decided he should make some attempt to befriend Geoffrey, rather than risk becoming his enemy. “Maybe Geoffrey and I should team up,” he suggested jovially. “Between my charms and Geoffrey’s brutality, we’d be unstoppable.”

Geoffrey looked up from his ale—mostly untouched—and stared back at Ralph with flat golden eyes. Then he gave Ralph a very fake smile.

A few of the men laughed uncertainly.

“I think Richard picked you because you make him look compassionate.” A grumpy squire, no doubt jealous of Ralph’s promotion, managed to break the growing tension. “I hear King Edward will send some Normans home during the next council, never to return. Too many of the king’s Saxon subjects have complained about our presence here.”

“Surely they’re not complaining about Lord FitzScrob.” Ralph said this to assure himself as much as anyone. He also downed a few more gulps of ale to help wash away his fears. He wanted to stay here in Engla-lond, especially now that he would get his own horse and tenants.

“Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be too sure about your knighthood if I were you,” mumbled the jealous squire. “King Edward might not let us stay here, much less put another Norman in a position of power.”

Ralph stared into his horn of ale and tried to think of a new topic of discussion.

Sir Fulbert came to his rescue. “Have you looked for a wife yet? A proper Saxon woman might secure your place here.”

“That’s true.” This subject brought a smile back to Ralph’s face. He looked beyond the circle of Normans and surveyed his nearest options. “Might as well get started, eh?”

The men cheered him on appreciatively as he rose to leave the table.

He breathed a sigh of relief once away from his Norman companions. He liked them well enough, but more and more often he preferred English company to theirs. And he certainly didn’t mind the prospect of beginning the search for a woman—though he had no intention of choosing a wife yet.

A few seated women looked lonely enough for him to attempt entertaining, but a serving wench grabbed his attention, for she seemed in need of a hero. A large man had hold of the woman’s hand and did not appear willing to release it. The woman tugged a few times; she carried a pitcher of wine with her other hand and this limited her movement. But the large Saxon kept hold of her, leering and talking while she tried not to listen.

“Excuse me,” said Ralph. “I think the lady wants you to let go of her.”

Both the woman and the man blinked at him in surprise. Ralph hoped his Norman accent did not make him too difficult to understand. He gave his warmest smile to the woman, though she looked a little older and less attractive this close than she had from afar. A quick study of her curvy body assured him that she would still be worth the effort.

“And who are you to say?” The Saxon man’s sneer appeared as a streak of brown teeth amidst his thick beard.

“Merely a concerned citizen.”

“No you’re not. You’re a fucking Norman.” The Saxon worked up a mouthful of spit, then flung it upon the floor.

Ralph stared in disgust at the blob for a moment, struggling to contain his temper. Then he altered his stance slightly so that his hand draped almost casually over the pommel of his sword, making the weapon the most prominent trait of his figure. “I am a knight in the service of Lord Richard FitzScrob.”

“Well then, knight.” The Saxon’s grip on the woman tightened. “Maida and I know each other.”

Ralph looked to the woman, Maida, for confirmation. Her big brown eyes sparked with anger as she scowled at the Saxon. “I may know Seaver,” she hissed, “but that doesn’t mean I like him.”

Maida looked even prettier when she was angry. Ralph grinned and turned back to Seaver. “Looks like you should let go of her now.”

“You can’t tell me what to do!” Then Seaver twisted in his chair and kicked Ralph in the shin.

The strike caught Ralph by such surprise that for a moment he did nothing but hiss and absorb the pain. When he realized what the Saxon scoundrel had done, he reacted without thinking. He reached out, grabbed Seaver’s hair, and slammed his face into the table. (more…)

Norman Culture

Today’s history post is short and sweet. I offer you a drawing and a few quick facts about Norman culture.

Norman Culture circa 1066 A.D.

  • The Normans descended from Vikings that settled in northern France. The term “Norman” came from “Northman”
  • Probably due to their Viking heritage, Norman culture revolved heavily around fighting and combat. They had strong military values that permeated their culture
  • Their favorite pastimes including hunting and sparring
  • In a trial to decide someone’s guilt or innocence, it was more common for the verdict to depend on a round of combat (each concerned party would offer a champion to fight for them) than the trials of ordeal seen so often in Anglo-Saxon culture
  • The Normans dearly loved their horses. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, however, the Normans did not hesitate to send their horses into combat. Their ruthless use of cavalry and the intensive training of their horses helped give them the upper hand in the Battle of Hastings. Normans trained their horses to kick and trample their enemies, and even break their shields. The Anglo-Saxons are famous for their sturdy shield-walls in battle. The Normans are more well-known for their fierce charge into combat on horseback, and the hoof-heavy stampede could send the Saxon shield-wall shattering
  • Normans usually shaved their faces and kept their hair cut very short, unlike the Saxons, who generally preferred beards, mustaches, and long hair. Once when William the Conqueror brought some Saxon nobility to Normandy, he is said to have paraded them like women because of their long hair. The famous Norman haircut consisted of a small swatch of hair on top of the head to the ears, while the back of the skull was closely shaven. This haircut probably developed due to their tendency to wear chainmail coifs over their heads, which would tangle painfully with long hair
  • The Norman weapon of choice was the sword, whereas the Saxons still loved their spears and axes
  • The Normans are generally described as very ambitious folk. Their devotion to power and greatness also gave them an admirable streak of discipline. Say what you will about their conceit or greed, such characteristics are what drove them to design great castles and revolutionize warfare.
Published in: on June 19, 2012 at 10:07 am  Comments (2)  
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Last Tales of Mercia 2: Richard the Norman

When King Edward calls on his allies for military support, the Norman lord Richard FitzScrob must take drastic measures to make his Saxon subjects obedient.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

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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.

**

Whereupon [Goodwin] began to gather forces over all his earldom, and Earl Sweyne, his son, over his; and Harold, his other son, over his earldom: and they assembled all in Gloucestershire, at Langtree, a large and innumerable army, all ready for battle against the king; unless Eustace and his men were delivered to them handcuffed, and also the Frenchmen that were in the castle.

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1051

LUDLOW, SHROPSHIRE

September 1051 A.D.

“I am very sorry, my lord,” mumbled the vassal. “But I’ll have the rent for you next week, once we have finished storing the harvest.”

Richard FitzScrob twisted his gloves with his large hands, finding the fabric more useful as a casualty of his anger than protection from the autumn chill. He would have much preferred venting some of his rage upon this hapless churl who most deserved it. Dougal was a so-called “free-man,” according to the Anglo-Saxon custom, which meant he could own land and entertain his own life beyond the limited duties he owed his landlord. But again and again the tenant had fallen short of his responsibilities to Lord Richard, such as maintaining the fences for Richard’s livestock or giving alms to the church on Richard’s estate. Now, for the first time, Dougal had failed to fulfill his single-most important liberty as a churl: paying rent.

Richard shifted in his chair, thinking it would be nice to stand and loom over the kneeling Saxon. Then he remembered that his crooked feet ached quite acutely today. He glanced at one of his squires, Ralph, to step forward and loom in his place. The young Norman was a promising warrior who wore chainmail on a regular basis and had a way of standing that thrust out the pommel of his sword and made it the most noticeable trait of his figure. The squire walked forward, making his feet thunder on the floorboards even though he was not a particularly large man, and assumed the proper pose. Ralph even rested his hand on the hilt of his weapon in a way that made him look both casual and battle-ready at once.

The Saxon churl gulped and grew a notch paler. This response satisfied Richard, who overcame his rage enough to speak with a low, calm candor. “I feel I have been rather lenient with you,” said the landlord, “in an attempt to make up for my ignorance as a foreigner.” Dougal frowned a little, straining to listen, and Richard realized this must be due to the thickness of Richard’s Norman accent. Richard gritted his teeth with frustration, then raised his voice a few notches, even though this did nothing to solve the problem. “But now I think I understand your English customs well enough to say that you have abused the privileges of your freedom and therefore we should change our arrangement.”

“Please, my lord—!”

Ralph shifted slightly, just enough to remind the Saxon of his presence, which effectively shut Dougal’s mouth. But a flare of anger lit the Saxon’s eyes, and Richard recognized it immediately for its true nature. What Dougal hated more than anything was not his personal misfortune. He hated that he paid his dues to a Norman lord who had only lived in Engla-lond for a few years. He silently believed the Normans were common bullies who did not deserve their high station—just as all of Richard’s native tenants assumed.

Richard sighed, regretting the tone that this conversation had so quickly adopted. “Listen, Dougal. I want to be fair to you. Here is what I propose. You are what is known as a geneat—do I say that correctly?”

Dougal nodded glumly.

“To take care of your rent, we can change your status to a kotsetla.” Richard desperately searched his brain for all the legalities tied to this position. “You will no longer pay rent. Instead you will work for me whenever I require you. Right now, as there is still some work left to do from the harvest, I will want you here three days a week. I will either have you work in the field, or the stables; I will even let you choose which you prefer. Throughout the year, you will always work for me at least one day a week. And this service will replace your rent.”

The look of shock on the Saxon’s face pleased Richard. Surely Dougal was astounded by Richard’s kindness. Surely he would thank Richard for overlooking his past mistakes and giving him work to do, even though he had demonstrated poor skills in the past. In truth, working on Richard’s estate would give him a chance to improve his own skills, especially if he worked in the stables. The Anglo-Saxons were far behind the Normans in most crafts, but especially the training of horse-flesh.

Richard thought with certainty that these were the thoughts going through Dougal’s mind. But then he got a shock of his own. The Saxon stood up and yelled, “My land will be my own one day! You won’t take it away from me!”

Before the rage struck, Richard reeled in a state of bewilderment. “Quoi?

Tears actually glittered in Dougal’s eyes. “I will work my own land. I will nurture it and I will buy it someday. I will become a thegn like my father before me and—”

“For God’s sake!” Richard wanted to stand and knock this churl’s teeth out. Dougal wanted to work his “own” land? Land that belonged to Richard? Land that had been granted to him from King Edward himself? His hands raked the table so harshly he felt a splinter thrust into his palm. Sensing his mood, Ralph grabbed the hilt of his sword. This was just enough to help Richard stay his temper a little bit longer. He clenched his jaws so hard his head ached, but he managed to hiss through his teeth, “I will give you one more week to pay your rent, plus a little extra for being late. Work it out with my reeve, Bartholomew, before you go home. But if you can’t pay, I expect you to be here, working in my fucking stables!

“Yes, my lord. Yes, yes. I’ll pay you next week. I will.” At last, a cloud of humility softened Dougal’s gaze, though it was not enough to abate Richard’s wrath. He only sent Dougal to work out the details with Bartholomew because if he looked at Dougal’s filthy face much longer, he might pummel it into the floorboards. Dougal must have sensed this, for he finally bowed low and shuffled out of the hall.

Richard sat there a long while, breathing heavily through his nose, clenching the wooden table with his fingers. Ralph waited quietly by, fidgeting a little, for as long as he could endure the silence.

“Well, my lord,” quipped the squire, “I think you handled that surprisingly well. Soon they’ll be calling you Richard the merciful!”

Ralph’s attempts at optimism did not always work on Richard; sometimes, they stoked his anger to the blazing point. But unexpectedly, Richard found himself nodding with agreement, the ball of anxiety in his stomach uncoiling. “I hope that is the case,” he replied. “I hope they will see that I am not the tyrant they imagine me to be.”

“Sure, as long as this Dougal fellow doesn’t fuck up his chance at redemption.” (more…)