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An Endless Exile
a Mushroom eBooks sampler
Copyright © 2004, Mary Lancaster
Mary Lancaster has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the Author of this work.
First published in United Kingdom in 2004 by Mushroom eBooks.
This Edition published in 2004 by Mushroom eBooks,
an imprint of Mushroom Publishing,
Bath, BA1 4BX, United Kingdom
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This is a sampler of An Endless Exile by Mary Lancaster. If you enjoy reading these sample chapters and would like to read the rest, you can buy the complete Mushroom eBook edition from the usual bookshops online, or find more details at www.mushroom-ebooks.com.
Present: March 1076
“Hereward is dead.”
Whatever I had expected of my husband’s nephew, rousing my household in the middle of the night to throw his dripping person and its accompanying blast of cold air at my feet, it was not that. Even though there can have been few men more likely to die.
Just for a moment, I could only stare at the bent, agitated head, watching the rivulets of water run down his hair to join the thousand others on his sodden cloak. By the trembling, almost sinister flame of my porter’s lamp, I could even see the little pool of water forming between us. Just for a moment, that fascinated me too.
Hereward is dead. Was this news, then, already galloping and spreading under the night-stars? Northwards, perhaps, to York and beyond, to his sister and to his erstwhile Danish friends of Northumbria. West too, to the old rebels of the Welsh marches – would Edric the Wild weep for the ally he had never met? South, probably, to the King in London or Winchester or wherever he was, and whatever pity was in his heart today. And eastward – was it eastward? – among the fens which had always been his. Were his people, the lost and despairing, loud in lament for their last great hero? Wildly – or silently – inconsolable? Or did they close their eyes in peace, breathe a mighty sigh of collective relief and say, “Thank God it is over at last: Hereward is dead.”
Perhaps, in the end, it would even be the Normans who mourned most for their new and prestigious friend. Or were the present masters of this land too full of such an unexpected triumph over their one-time enemy? An enemy who could never, after all, have become one of them; only a dangerous rival. Perhaps they would be unable to believe their luck, passing on the news in superstitious whispers through the great estates and courts of England and Normandy, that Hereward the Exile, the Outlaw, was dead.
There is a dreadful finality about that word. Even through the detached ramblings of my mind, I was aware of it. Gradually too, I became aware of the pain in my hand where Siward, my husband’s nephew, was pressing it into his face. He was kneeling still at my bare, icy feet as though begging forgiveness for the news he bore, and in his own torment of grief – or his completely misplaced fear for mine – gentleness was forgotten.
Still distractedly, I began to draw my fingers free. They were wet. Releasing me, Siward dashed his hands across his eyes, and rose slowly to his feet, sword clanking dully at his belt and brushing against the fur cloak I had dragged around my chemise to receive him. In the dimly flickering light of the lamp that my porter held unsteadily above us, the skin of his still young face looked taut and sickly, the hollows around his exhausted eyes black. The tangled mass of fair hair, palely imitating his uncle’s, fell damply forward over one cheek; then, impatiently, he pushed it back, the better to peer at me, I think, for signs of emotional disintegration. Baffled, I gazed silently back at him until in pity he lifted both arms for me.
Instinctively, I stepped backwards out of his reach, and as his arms fell again, a frown of puzzlement creased his low brow.
“Torfrida, he is dead,” he repeated deliberately, as if to a child, or to an imbecile who could not understand simple words. “Hereward, your husband, is dead.”
And at last the breath seemed to seep back into my body.
“Good,” I said with satisfaction. “Then I can go home to Bourne.”
* * * *
In the first light of a grey, wintry morning, I prepared with some care for my ride from Lincoln to Bourne. I dressed in a warm woollen gown of bright, sky blue, over a fine yellow under-dress. Beneath my veil, which was circled with a braided ribbon of the same blue and yellow, my hair was as neatly and becomingly pinned as I could make it. I had no intention of being surprised by anyone at any time.
That done, I drew the sable travelling cloak about me and regarded my reflection in the sheet of polished bronze which was the one extravagance of my solitary, sterile bed-chamber. My face was too thin now, marked by life like the grey streaks in my once jet-black hair. I looked, in fact, disconcertingly frail. My eyes, too large and bright for that face, stared back at me, half-frightened, half-excited; and in my breast my heart beat and beat and beat.
“Stop it, Torfrida,” I whispered. “Stop it . . .”
Then, taking a deep breath, I rose and went to collect my children. I was thirty-two years old, and felt as if I were waking up after a long, expectant sleep.
* * * *
The journey was accomplished mostly in uncomfortable silence, at least after we had drawn away from the children. Siward the White, torn between his own grief and an increasingly desperate, if covert, search for signs of mine, began to withdraw even further into his own private misery. I could not help that. It was not the time to try. For my own part, I think I sang a little, snatches of a merry French song that brought Siward’s eyes round to me with an astonishment that was far from admiring.
I smiled at him, beatifically, and twisted back in the saddle to give one last wave to the children. They were riding two ponies – Frida on one, the two little boys together on the other – in company with their nurse and most of the men-at-arms. We had agreed that they would go directly to Folkingham, to Gilbert of Ghent, their father’s godfather, while I insisted on riding ahead with Siward the White, to visit Bourne on the way. Siward said it was not fit for me. It was where Hereward had been killed.
“Do they know?” Siward asked abruptly.
“Know what?” I asked vaguely, straightening in my saddle, and adjusting the warm, soft cloak at my throat.
Siward said sharply, “That their father is dead, of course!”
“Oh no. I see no point in spoiling their treat. They are going to see their grandmother and Aunt Lucy, and stay at Uncle Gilbert’s hall; and Aunt Matilda will spoil them mercilessly. Now, Siward, add to my personal well-being: who had the ultimate honour of killing Hereward?”
This time he did not even try to keep the accusation out of his face or voice.
“The honour of killing your husband? Some treacherous Norman knights, purporting to be his friends! They were dining with him – it was the lady Aediva’s birthday feast – when their servants, who had hidden weapons under their clothes, fell on his men and . . .”
“Yes, so you told me last night,” I interrupted, waving that aside. “But who were they?”
“I don’t know,” Siward said bitterly. “I was not there. The assassins had fled by the time we came to his rescue. But it was Deda who escorted Aediva and Lucy to safety at Folkingham.”
My lip twitched as I regarded his averted face. “Deda,” I said with blatant mockery. “Deda killed Hereward?”
“Hardly!” said Siward sharply, displeased all over again by the flippancy of my tone. Well, what did he expect? “From all I can gather, Deda did everything possible to try and stop the fight. But I doubt the same could be said for that swaggering fool, Asselin!”
I had no quarrel with that description, but glancing up at him from under my lashes, I pointed out, “You told me they fled before you got to them.”
Siward’s pale skin flushed, but his eyes met mine squarely. “I heard from those who survived.”
“Yes,” I agreed evenly. “I expect you did.”
I lifted my brows at him, watched him take a deep breath. Then: “Torfrida, I know this is hard to take in; after all he has done, God knows I never thought he would die like that, foully, in his own home . . .”
“That’s just it, Siward,” I murmured. “It wasn’t his home.”
Siward blinked his pale eyes once. “Wasn’t his . . .?”
“No. He gave Bourne to me, in trust for Frida.”
Siward was staring at me. In truth, the contempt in his eyes hurt me far more than it should. What in the world did he imagine I still owed to a troublesome and adulterous husband I had cast off four years ago? Bourne was all I had had of him, and that I had looked after mainly for his mother and widowed sister who still lived there! My own efforts, my own reviving of my father’s trading ventures, had fed and clothed my children and me . . .
But Siward was angry now. I tried to make allowances for his grief.
“Are you really counting property while he lies cut to pieces not twenty-four hours since?” he said harshly. “He may have behaved ill to you once, Torfrida, but before God, he was still your husband!”
There was a short pause. Then: “Was he?” I actually sounded amused. Mind you, I had not been, although I had tried quite hard, when I first heard the song linking Hereward’s name to Aelfryth’s, and calling her his wife. It had been yelled out joyously by a couple of drunks in imperfect harmony one market day in Lincoln. Well, being young and fair and Saxon, she made a better heroine for the story than I – well past my first flush of youth, Flemish, and endowed with rather dubious knowledge for a Christian.
“There seems,” I remarked judiciously, “to be some doubt.”
Hereward is dead. What would she do when the news got to her? Was someone else – one of the twins perhaps, or Leofric the Deacon – even now riding across the country to tell her what Siward had already told me? Would she come crashing into Bourne, claiming to be his widow? Well, Bourne was one place she would have no such rights. Bourne, as I had just reminded Siward, was mine. Mine and Frida’s.
* * * *
Avoiding the village and the monastery, and the wide, stricken eyes of the few frightened people we encountered on the road, I came home to Bourne. His presence there, unexpected and uninvited, had prevented me returning at all for the last month, even for Aediva’s birthday, and I had missed it. I acknowledged that as my tired horse picked its way daintily across the stream which flowed from St. Peter’s Pool, the natural fountain close by. Above the stream rose the earth mound and stockade that protected my hall.
Whatever occurred here yesterday, Hereward’s people had not deserted his ancestral home. The gates were closed and guarded by a man I knew well: he had a sword-scar on his left buttock. I tried to bear that in mind as he greeted me, disconcertingly with tears rolling unchecked down his rough, pitted cheeks.
While I stared carefully between my horse’s ears and urged it through the gates, I heard Siward quickly questioning the man.
“Where is he?”
“In the hall . . .”
“Is he fit . . .?”
“As he can be.”
I rode carefully on, and my heart beat and beat and beat.
* * * *
There had certainly been a battle here. The whole yard and the burned and damaged buildings around it bore unmistakable witness to that. For the first time, foolishly, I wanted to weep, because in all the years of war, for all the halls and towns and castles I had seen destroyed by one side or another, Bourne had never before been one of them.
But they were there, Hereward’s ‘gang’. Just as in the old days, they would have had word this last half hour and more of my approach. And as my horse picked its way slowly into the devastated yard, they emerged from the hall and the outbuildings, pausing in their tasks of clearing and burying and putting to rights, to stand and move silently towards me, united as one in their enormous loss, in their pity, and in the great grief they assumed, despite everything, that I would share.
“Fools!” I thought, with a sudden fury that could never be free of affection. “Fools, fools!”
Forcing myself, I picked out with my eyes those of them I had known and loved best, marked with my mind those who were notably absent.
“In the hall,” the soldier had said. And since I had no words to offer the men I had laughed with and suffered with for so long, I half-turned, till I could see the hall door. It lay open, half ripped off its hinges, and the twins, Hereward’s cousins Outi and Duti, stood on either side of it, shoulders sagging with fatigue, mouths drooping with misery. And yet they tried to smile at me.
I did not know what was going on.
My limbs were trembling slightly, and not just with the cold. Lifting my head, I drew the sable close around my throat and moved forward to the hall. Men moved respectfully to let me pass. Behind me, I was aware of Siward saying urgently, “Torfrida, wait a little. At least let me ensure . . .” But I heard no more. At the door, Outi embraced me, briefly, and because I could not stop it, I let him. And then I was past them, in the hall itself.
The battle had been in here too. They had made some effort to clear it up, but broken benches and tables lay piled on both sides and hangings had been torn down or shredded. The walls were scarred and pierced by weapons, stained by many liquids, some of which, at least, must have been blood. There was always blood. And at the far end, even the high table had been damaged: one of its legs was propped up now on a broken chair. I could see that, although I could not see what was laid upon it. In front of it stood Leofric the Deacon, a stained, ragged bandage askew about his head, and Siward the Red, friend and cousin of the White Siward who had followed me inside. From the footsteps I heard, so had the twins.
For a moment, we stared at each other. Then my eyes flitted beyond them, and around the hall, and back to Leofric. It was he, inevitably, who moved first, stepping down from the dais, and coming straight towards me, a thousand expressions flitting across his open, gentle face.
I decided to strangle the pity at birth.
“Very well,” I said sardonically. “Where is the body?”
Shock brought him to a standstill. Beside him, I saw Siward the Red’s eyes fly to his cousin’s. I even felt the movement of Siward the White’s tired shrug.
Leofric said, “It is here; but I have to warn you, lady . . .”
“I have seen dead bodies before,” I interrupted drily. “You must remember that, Leofric – you were generally there.” And I moved forward, brushing past him. At the last moment, he reached out and caught my arm. He was strong enough to force me, but I did not struggle. Instead, slowly, I looked back at him over my shoulder. His dark eyes gazed at me, serious, intense, pleading.
“Torfrida, don’t . . .”
I laughed. “Don’t what? Don’t look? Why do you think I came?”
I think it was the laughter that shook him off. At any rate I was free, with no inclination, or time, to think about what was in his face. There was only one obstacle left, on the dais: Siward the Red, planted firmly in front of me. On his left, on the table, I could see someone’s up-turned boots.
“Stand aside, Siward,” I said quietly, and reluctantly, slowly, he did.
I took my time. There were the boots, and leggings, and a short tunic worn without armour, save for the red painted shield still slung around his body like his sword-belt. There was a black dragon on the shield, with fierce, jewelled, emerald green eyes. My lips parted.
For the first time, I acknowledged the stale smell of burning that came off the body. His hair and head had been badly burned, beyond recognition. That should not have surprised me. I think it was the isolated clumps of thick, golden hair clinging still to his shoulders and chest that threw me off balance. Siward was right: he had been hacked to pieces. Bits of limbs were missing, there were massive, gory wounds in his legs and body, and his face, dear God, was enough to make seasoned warriors cringe.
I had seen enough. Sickened, I was already beginning to turn away when something on the body caught my eye: something frail and small and stained, but once, unmistakably, yellow. It shone through the singed, filthy, bloody rags of his clothing, somewhere between his chest and his left shoulder. Involuntarily, my hand reached out and touched it.
A braided ribbon, sewn with tiny gems.
My mouth opened, soundless at first, then gasping, and gasping again. Another storm filled my ears, rushing, swelling, endless. “Jesus Christ,” I whispered, twisting with the awful, unbearable thing I had found. “Jesus Christ . . .”
Leofric said urgently, “What . . .?”
And Siward the White interrupted him savagely, “She did not know! She would not believe me!” Blindly, I looked at him while he strode up to the dais and seized me by both arms. “You didn’t, did you? That is why you behaved so – said all those things! For God’s sake, Torfrida, what do you take me for?”
A queer, animal noise burst from my throat.
Leofric said sharply, “Leave her!” And as soon as the fingers slackened on my arm, I was away, bolting for the door, away from the tragedy I had not foreseen and would never be able to run from. The dreadful finality of death was upon me at last, and now, now, I was lost.
Hereward is dead.
They let me run, as if they knew it was the only thing I could do, as if they knew I had done much the same thing before, over another, less terminal parting. And I suppose they knew I would come back.
And I did. Not so very much later. And I was calm, with the calm that can only be induced in me by fixed purpose. Yet, mostly, I felt detached from my surroundings, as if I were somebody else entirely.
Walking sedately back across the yard, I was aware of the men watching me with varying degrees of subtlety. Only Wulric the Heron, slumped in the open doorway of what used to be the men’s house, had no such pretensions. His white, ugly face looked wrung dry, his muddy eyes huge as they stared at me unblinkingly. His arm was roughly bandaged, and there was blood all over his coat.
Abruptly, I changed direction and walked over to him. Some habits are hard to break, whatever the circumstances.
“You are hurt, Wulric,” I observed, much as I had on many occasions past.
“I am alive,” he corrected me, without noticeable pleasure.
“I would like you to stay that way. May I see your wounds?”
“If you like. It’s nought to me.”
Taking his less bloody arm, I led him into the house. I said carefully, “You are grieving for him.”
“For him,” Wulric agreed. “Who is not? And for the lesser men.”
The lesser men. I remembered one, notably absent from the crowd in the yard. Why was it, I wondered with detachment, that one all-consuming pain could not dull the many lesser griefs? Instead, it seemed to sharpen them, so that I could not speak again until I had sat him down upon the nearest bed and unwrapped most of his filthy bandages.
“Have I taught you no better than this?” I asked severely, dropping the rags with exaggerated distaste.
“I did not care,” he said without emphasis.
“Wulric the Black is also dead?” I asked calmly, and the dead man’s friend nodded once, dumbly. His Adam’s apple wobbled precariously, making him look so ugly that I wanted to put my arms around him. However, since I didn’t think either of us could bear that, I stood up and went to fetch the water bowl lying on the table under the window. It looked clean.
Wulric the Heron watched me return to him, and when I had begun to wash, he said without flinching, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to add to – to . . .”
“They will all be added, Wulric.” My voice sounded perfectly calm, a little tight perhaps, but calm. Somewhere, I could still wonder at that, that I could still act and think as before.
Wulric’s eyes had lifted to mine, widening. A faint light even gleamed there, briefly. “God must have spared me to be revenged . . .”
Ignoring this slightly unlikely interpretation of God’s will, I said only, “What happened here, Wulric?”
“They were here,” he said. “Visiting the lady Aediva, or her daughter, I don’t know. But Hereward asked them to sit down for dinner. Again.”
“Who?” I asked. “Who did he ask?”
Wulric frowned. “That parcel of Normans. Asselin, Ralf of Dol, Hugh of Evermouth, Ivo de Taillebois . . .”
I glanced down at his face. “Ivo was there?” I asked quickly.
“Yes, and Deda. They all had their retinues of servants and soldiers, and they were all given hospitality.”
“Siward told me the servants carried weapons hidden in their clothes.”
Wulric stared unseeingly at the gory arrow-hole in his shoulder. “They drank with us. I think there was something in the ale. Or in some of it. I think they brought more to Wulric when he was on watch outside the hall, for he fell asleep. Wulric never sleeps on watch. They could have stepped over him to do their work, but they didn’t. They killed him anyway, when he could not fight back.”
I frowned at him. “You know this?”
“No, I’m guessing that part. I was inside the hall, with him. The first I – the first any of us knew, was when the door burst open and the Normans’ servants and soldiers rushed in. As if it was a signal, the others rose to their feet, swords were out, and the fight began. If you can call it a fight. With Hereward there was only Wynter and Martin and Leofric and me – and the two servitors who could not fight off their own grandmothers . . . Hereward saw at once we were lost and ordered me to bring the others – they were hidden in the old forest camp – but someone saw me opening the door and shot this arrow that pinned me there some time before I could get it out . . . And when I did, and I got out of the door, I tripped over something. They told me later it was Wulric the Black . . . I ran till I thought I would burst, giving the whistles as I went – they met me half way, but even so, we were too late . . .”
I wanted to close my eyes, as if that would shut it all out, make it unreal. I said prosaically, “That will be more comfortable. I’ll bind it for you now. Tomorrow I’ll put some ointment on it that will keep infection away and help it to heal faster.” Binding it with torn linen from the other bed, I said determinedly, “So the Normans’ servants conveniently began it. Did Hereward turn on their masters? Did any of you?”
“Hereward drew his sword,” Wulric said, after a moment’s frowning thought. “It was instinctive, and you know how quick he is . . . Was. He leapt over the table, to meet those charging into the hall, and they were upon him in a trice.”
“Who were?” I asked patiently.
“The boy who came to Ely once – Ralf. Hugh of Evermouth. Asselin. Chiefly.”
“Not Deda?” I asked, because I had to.
And even like this, Wulric could spare a faint upward tug of his torn lips for Deda. “No, not Deda. He was shouting furiously at the others, trying to push up their swords, but no one paid him any attention. All he could do was hustle the ladies away before they got hurt. Unless he’d been prepared to join us – a gang of Saxons fighting his own people!”
“And Ivo de Taillebois?”
Ivo, who would marry Hereward’s sister, if he could, yet who could not keep his black, sparkling eyes away from me . . .
Wulric frowned. “He’s a cool bastard. He fought if anyone came near him. Otherwise, he stood, or even sat, and watched. Sometimes, often when Hereward confounded the others, he laughed. I had an idea he disapproved of his countrymen, but he did nothing to interfere. I suppose he wouldn’t. Anyway, all that was at the beginning, before I got away . . . I wish I had never left him.”
“You could have changed nothing,” I said dully. “And you would be dead as well.”
He looked at me bleakly. “I know.”
* * * *
Leaving Wulric, I resumed my journey to the hall. My feet felt heavy and reluctant. I did not want to go in there. Not because I was afraid of the awful thing on the high table that had once contained the huge life of Hereward, but because I was afraid of his friends, of their effect on me, of their need of me. But I had to go to Folkingham. My children were there.
The door still hung crazily open, so they did not hear me come in. For a moment, I stood in the shadows, more from an inability to act than any desire to hear what they said.
And they were talking about me.
“. . . don’t care!” Siward the Red was exclaiming, violently punching his own leg as he half-sat on one of the trestle tables. “Why should you lie to her?”
“She didn’t think I had,” said Siward the White tiredly. “She thought I was – mistaken.”
“Why, in God’s holy name?”
“I don’t know. I think – probably – because she did not see it in the stars.”
There was silence.
Then: “But she cannot have imagined he was playing some trick!”
“I think that is exactly what she did imagine.”
“Dear God . . .” Duti said, sagging into an empty bench. “With what possible purpose?”
“Well think about it!” Siward the White said impatiently. “He arrived here over a month ago, giving no reason and making no attempt either to go to her in Lincoln or to bring her back to Bourne. She must have thought, like the rest of us, that he was seeking reconciliation at last. She must have thought he wanted her back, that he was too proud to beg or to chase, so she played along with his game, as she thought, to get her home. It probably suited her pride as well. White Christ! I don’t know what goes on in the minds of those two . . .”
This was unbearable. I found my eyes were closed, tightly, till some movement in the hall made me open them again in alarm.
“Well what convinced her you weren’t mistaken?” Outi was demanding, coming down from the dais with his quick, nervous tread. “That none of us were?”
The Siwards exchanged glances. This time, I would have intervened, but my tongue had got stuck, cleaving to the dry roof of my mouth.
“The ribbon,” said Siward the White at last, reluctantly, finally revealing the secret that he and his cousin had kept so long. “The ribbon that’s tied around his shoulder. He always wore it in battle, under his shirt – ever since Flanders. It was the first token she ever gave him.”
I moved forward then, suddenly, because my body could not bear to be still. Almost as one, they swung round to face me, and I saw without surprise that Deda was there too, now, seated at the table and half-hidden still by Siward the Red. He rose, abruptly, coming towards me and then, helplessly, pausing, as if he did not know how he – one of the party of Frenchmen who had killed Hereward – would be received.
“She doesn’t blame you,” Siward the White said quickly.
“Of course I don’t,” I said, just as hastily. “Later, later I will thank you for your care of my mother- and sister-in law. I am ready to go to Folkingham now.”
“Of course,” said the Siwards at once, and the twins too prepared to accompany me.
But I had seen Deda’s face, and when my enquiring gaze did not leave it, he said slowly, “Ivo de Taillebois is at Folkingham.”
A snarl that was only half pain writhed across the twins’ identical faces.
I said calmly, “Then Gilbert had better keep him away from my cousins. Shall we go?”
* * * *
I had done this before, ridden this path up to Folkingham Hall, just before dusk, with fear of the future in my heart. We had come into this very yard, and someone had helped me to dismount. Just as then, I did not look at the man who was setting me on my feet, for I was busy trying not to remember.
The yard was full of men, soldiers, gathering and drilling in expectation of the trouble Hereward’s murder was bound to inspire. Somewhere inside, in the hall probably, were my children, waiting to be told that their father was dead.
And coming out of the hall door, Gilbert of Ghent, Hereward’s god-father, wearing a breastplate over his rich tunic, and a sword at his belt. Gilbert in martial mood, though with what purpose I had yet to find out. At his heels came his son and heir, a worried frown creasing his serious brow, and beside them, the lady Matilda, who had been weeping.
Weep, Matilda, weep . . .
I think I would have coped if she had not smiled. But though the tears still glistened wetly on her puffy face, she tried to pull herself together when she saw me. Her hand lifted in sorrowful welcome, and yet she tried to smile, a quite inappropriate, almost grotesque effort in all its false brightness. Just so, flanked by her husband and a son, had she smiled at me when I had first come here twenty years ago, a furious but determined child of twelve, sent from Flanders by my own parents with the incomprehensible purpose of marrying me to Matilda’s eldest son.
Inevitably, the memories burst on me, overwhelming me until my breath rasped in my throat, and I gave up the fight, and let them come.
Past: Into Exile: April 1056 – January 1057
My betrothed was not a handsome man. Gangly to the point of gawkiness, his mousy hair already thinning, although I knew for a fact he was only nineteen years old, he stood hunched between his fixedly smiling parents. The unpleasing contours of his face were only emphasized by the general mottled redness of his complexion – to say nothing of the even less becoming hue of his puce, bulbous nose, above which rather weak, sullen eyes regarded me with a depressing mixture of desperation, dejection and straightforward dislike.
I didn’t blame him for that. I was not much of a bargain myself from a physical point of view. Besides being only twelve years old, plain and short, with the odd sort of pre-adolescent body that humorously manages to combine skinniness and lumpiness, I showed little promise of improvement.
On top of which, I had a cold.
“This,” beamed Gilbert de Ghent, the sleeves of his long, heavily embroidered tunic rustling expensively as he cast one arm around my intended, “is my son, Robert. Robert, make your bow to the fair lady Torfrida who has come to us all the way from my good friends in Flanders.”
Robert obediently bowed, a jerky, graceless motion that held neither courtesy nor respect. Even his dress, muddied and plain and short, and quite unadorned save for a rather grotesque, wrought silver buckle at his belt, spoke of neglect that amounted to insult. Obviously he had been among English Saxons too long.
He still was, for the yard in which I was met by this daunting threesome seemed to be teeming with young men engaged in wrestling or contests of arms or other manly sports, while several ladies watched from the edges, or from the great doorway of the low, sprawling house facing me.
The fair lady Torfrida, seeing nothing worthy of comment, sniffed with watery disdain.
Robert, surreptitiously pinched by his still smiling mother, forced himself to speak, muttering ungraciously, “I trust I find you well?”
Inevitably, I sneezed. I made it loud and enthusiastic, although I glared balefully at him over the top of my handkerchief.
“Do I look well?” I demanded.
There was a short silence while they all stared at me in blank dismay. Even without the cold, it must have been apparent that I didn’t look too well.
I sniffed again. Some of the young men, grubby and panting still with their exertions, and most of the observing women, were gazing in our direction. I expect it was the sneeze. I am good at sneezes.
The lady Matilda said smoothly, “You will be exhausted after your long journey.”
I did not answer at first, for a wink of startling golden hair, gleaming among the many paler heads around it, had caught my attention – probably because it was the brightest thing I had yet seen in this grey, dreary place. It belonged to a fair youth in a rough, sleeveless leather tunic with a sword belt slung over his broad shoulder. Wild, beardless and dirty-looking, with the barbarically long, tangled hair favoured by Saxons of a certain type, he was strolling among the combatants in the yard as if they were so many flowers in a field; and though it was hard to tell – for his eyes seemed to dart constantly and his whole body was somehow unstill – I thought he was looking mainly at us.
Then, abruptly, he dropped out of my view – felled, I perceived, by several other young men at once. The one at the top looked as dark as the victim was fair, but indescribably neater and cleaner. It crossed my mind that the golden youth was probably the sort who invited such unequal attacks. Or perhaps it was all part of their silly games. I didn’t care. I already disliked the entire country.
Looking away, I realized that the lady Matilda, still determinedly smiling, was holding out her arm, dripping at the wrists with fine, English lace, in the direction of the house. The invitation was obvious, but I made her say it.
“May I give you some refreshment in the hall? Or would you prefer to retire and rest before supper? Come, I shall take you myself.”
I glanced coldly at the men of the family. Robert, my betrothed, bowed again, jerkily. I ignored him. His father, a powerful, handsome man not yet forty, idly fingered the fine gold filigree brooch at his shoulder, and smiled. It was a distracted smile, as if he were thinking about something – or someone – else entirely. Why then was I so sure he disliked me? Apart, of course, from the fact that I had done nothing so far to be liked.
“I hope you don’t mind this rabble, by the way,” the lady said brightly, guiding me safely round a pair of worryingly inept young archers. “My husband encourages all the young men of the neighbourhood to practice sports and arms here – a sort of informal tourney. We do it several times a year, but I assure you it is not constant!”
“I have just been fortunate,” I said sardonically, stepping over a fallen wrestler in my path. “Again.”
She did not take me into the hall – the main house, long, large, single-storied, flimsily wooden – but as we skirted it, a sudden commotion above my head startled me into glancing up at the roof with extreme apprehension. Somebody was pulling himself up the thatch from the other side, throwing one bare, brown leg over the ridge of the roof, and perching there like a weather vane.
It was the same golden-haired youth I had last noticed vanishing under an apparently irresistible onslaught of fellow brutes.
The lady Matilda stopped. So did I. The boy on the roof, a little battered about the face, drew one deep, reviving breath, and grinned. It was an insolent, provoking sort of a grin, though there seemed to be genuine laughter there too, and it was aimed at someone below him on the far side of the hall.
“Oh no,” the lady uttered – involuntarily, I thought.
Then the youth said something I didn’t catch. It sounded deep and sharp, like a command, and immediately two dark boys near us – whom I hadn’t even noticed before – started throwing things at the roof. Or no, not at the roof, but to the youth astride it. Sticks, stones, tree-branches, hats, buckets, old bits of broken armour – it seemed they were not choosy – and all tossed up with blood-curdling, martial yells.
And the golden youth, catching most of them, at once began hurling them at some unseen foe, or foes, on the other side of the building. Sometimes he called out a name before he threw, as if giving an impudent warning. Once I heard him laugh, quick and clear and incongruously joyous.
All around us now, like some noisy nightmare, I could hear people cheering and laughing and shouting out advice. One or two others moved disgustedly away, some calling warnings to friends or to the agitated women on the fringes, but in the main, all over the yard, men were dropping their weapons and their opponents and running over to watch the fun. Or to join in.
And they said this was a civilized country. I didn’t understand how the lady Matilda could tolerate such behaviour.
Apparently she couldn’t. When I looked at her, her face was still turned upwards; but her eyes were closed, as though praying for strength. It made her human for the first time.
Ineffectual, but human.
“Where,” uttered the lady, opening her eyes at last, “is Gilbert?”
Looking about me, I saw no sign of him. Instead, I found two young women beside us, the smaller open-mouthed and scared looking, though her eyes still sparkled with some sort of delighted anticipation. Stupid, I judged. It was to the other maiden, tall, spotlessly clean, that Matilda spoke.
“Emma,” she said, and I remembered that Emma was the name of her eldest daughter. “Emma, fetch your father or we’ll have blood before supper . . .”
“You’ll have it any way now,” the tall girl returned, managing to convey both resignation and annoyance. “If you will invite him, you must expect trouble.”
“Well I could do without it today!” Matilda snapped. She wasn’t smiling any more. She hadn’t been for some time. “Will you fetch your father when I tell you? You shall meet Torfrida at supper. Come, my dear . . .”
I cast another glance at the roof. The opposition appeared to be fighting back to some purpose, for the golden youth now sat among a positive hail of missiles hurled from the far side of the hall, many of which struck their target. On the other hand, more men were climbing up to join him from our side, while others again ran in with fresh ammunition. Even as I watched, I saw the boy’s far leg jerk violently. The thud and the scream from the other side of the building, told me the rest – that he had just kicked some would-be interloper off the roof.
“Two in one blow!” he yelled triumphantly, confirming my prognosis. “One slitherer, one flyer!”
A rousing cheer went up from his own side. Behind me, I heard the smaller, sillier girl gurgling with laughter. “Isn’t he splendid?” she demanded, followed by a decided slap and an aggrieved, “Ouch!”
By quick thinking, I managed to turn my hysterical laughter into a sneeze. Hastily following the lady, I observed, “You appear to be hosting a battle.”
“Oh no, my dear, nothing less than a war,” Matilda said with suppressed savagery as a rock fell alarmingly close to us. I stepped over it, and paused.
“Do you want him down?” I offered. “This stone, scientifically aimed . . .”
“By whom?” she interrupted bitterly. “My husband or my son?”
I stared at her. “By me, of course.”
Matilda closed her mouth. Swiftly, before she could recover, I bent and took hold of the rock in both hands, lifting it and walking away almost in the same breath. It wasn’t easy, for the stone was heavy, and now that I had it, I was no longer quite so sure of my ability to bring the golden barbarian down. However, since that was of purely secondary importance to me, I kept going, ignoring her alarmed, “Torfrida! In God’s name, come out of there!”
By the time I was in among those who were trying to dislodge the boys on the roof – there were three of them up there now – I had planned my angles and my distance. Stolidly, I was ignoring the blunt objects that whizzed past my ears and flew over my head. Once in place, slightly aggrieved that no one but the lady Matilda seemed to be paying me any attention, I hefted the stone to my shoulder, and took aim.
Only then did the golden youth perceive me. Laughing aloud, he said something to the boys behind him, while still hurling sticks and a particularly nasty looking stone – fortunately not in my direction. At the same time, he appeared to be impudently offering me his yellow head as a target. Accepting with alacrity, I altered my aim slightly, and let my hand fall back to throw, but then, before I could, I was suddenly pulled unceremoniously aside and only just managed to avoid dropping the stone on my own foot.
* * * *
There was an ante-chamber with sweet-smelling rushes on the floor; small but furnished with several stools and a chest in the French style. Beyond it was a large chamber, full of beds. My step faltered. Was I to have no privacy, even at night? I didn’t know whether to scream or weep or wrestle my mother-in-law to the ground in what seemed to be the fashion of her adopted country.
In the end, I did none of these things, which was just as well, for my fate was really not quite so bad. She had given me a corner of my own, curtained off from the others by bright, heavy hangings. I even had a window.
“You will not mind the others,” the lady told me in a way that made me want to mind them very much. It was the first thing she had managed to bring herself to say to me since dragging me away from the battlefield. She was smiling again. “They are all young, like yourself, and well-born. Now I shall leave you – but I’ll send someone with a posset to make you feel better.”
“Please don’t trouble,” I said coldly, but she was already half way across the main chamber. I don’t think she even heard me.
I stood still, counting silently to twenty. Then, in the heavy silence – someone must have stopped the battle in the yard – I let my shoulders slump. Slowly, I unfastened my sable-lined cloak and dropped it on the bed. I hoped no one had seen me shaking. Now, remembering vividly the recent tedious hours at sea, spent mainly with my stuffed and runny nose pressed into my knees, and a few brief glimpses thereafter of endless grey skies and vast, dreary marshes beyond the river’s shores – to say nothing of the bumpy, lonely ride here after my people had abandoned me to the servants of my betrothed – I just felt cold.
I sat down on top of the cloak, and tried to think.
I hadn’t got very far when the hanging moved and a bright voice in the gap said, “Hallo! You must be Torfrida.”
I looked round to see a pretty girl just a year or so older than myself; she was smiling at me. Her hair was long, loose and gleamingly fair, confined only by a braided circlet of blue and red ribbon around her forehead. She wore a simple gown of fine, sky-blue wool – woven in Flanders, I rather thought, by the new processes which were making my father so wealthy – fastened with small, old-fashioned snake-shaped brooches at either shoulder. Between, she wore a string of pretty but inexpensive glass beads.
In her hands she held an ornate, silver cup. Without enthusiasm, I looked from it up to the girl’s open, merry face.
“So I must,” I agreed. “Who are you?”
“Lucy,” she said amiably. “Lucy of Bourne. One of the lady’s ladies – if you see what I mean!”
“I expect I can work it out. Given time and a sharp pen.” I sneezed again, accusingly. “Lucy is hardly an English name.”
“I was named after my lord’s – that is, the Earl of Mercia’s – grand-daughter, but the lady Matilda always calls me by the French form. I don’t mind – it distinguishes us! And anyway, my sister in Northumbria is English enough for both of us – Aethelthryth, after the saint of Ely. And her son is Siward, to please the Norsemen, I suppose, though I can’t see that any of that stuff matters. And I must say,” she added, coming further into my corner, “I am very glad that you speak Saxon, for my French is atrocious and I don’t have a word of Flemish. This is for you,” said the girl, as if she had suddenly remembered the cup in her hands. “To help your poor cold.”
“Thank you,” I said distantly, turning back towards the window. “Please leave it on the side.”
She did as I bade her, but the unspoken command – namely to take herself off and leave me alone – was obviously too subtle for her. Dropping familiarly on to the bed beside me, she said cosily, “So! How do you like your betrothed?”
“At a distance,” I said shortly. With luck it would get back to him, suitably embellished. However, instead of looking shocked, the girl only smiled.
“You must not mind Robert. He will have been nervous of meeting you. Really, he is very amiable and very gentle. You are lucky.”
I stared at her. “Then you marry him.”
She only grinned again, impishly, but in a way that disturbed her angelic beauty not at all. She reminded me of someone.
“I could do worse,” she acknowledged regretfully. “But I have other plans. So do my parents, more to the point! The lady said, by the way, that I should let you rest before supper – old people are always saying things like that. Do you want to rest?”
“Would you go away if I said I did?”
Rudeness, like subtlety, seemed to float right over her head. She said distractedly, “Of course, if you asked me to,” quickly followed by, “Are you missing your home? Or perhaps, like me, you’re just glad to escape parental restrictions!”
I turned away from her again, quickly, saying coldly, “I was never much restricted.” Until now . . .
“Lucky you! I was, quite horribly, I assure you! Life is much better now – although at times my parents are still too close for comfort. When we are here at Folkingham, the lady can complain of me too easily! Bourne, my father’s favourite hall, is only eight miles from here.”
Eight miles. What would I give for a mere eight miles? And eight years . . .
“Still, at least I need seldom be home-sick,” the strange girl comforted herself, belying her previous joy in her escape. “Nor, more importantly, need I listen to the perpetual quarrels of my father and brother!"
At that I did regard her with only slightly distracted fascination. “Your family can quarrel?” I had more or less given up trying to provoke one with her.
“Oh yes,” she said blithely. “Hereward, you see, is my brother.”
Lost but not yet despairing, I enquired, “Is that a matter for congratulation?”
And she laughed. “I hardly know! Certainly, it gets one noticed, but as for congratulation – well, you will have your own opinion by now. You must have seen him on your way across the yard.”
I looked at her. “One of the wrestling young men?” I hazarded, without much hope; there was a certain inevitability about all this.
“No,” she said apologetically. “The one on the roof. The first one on the roof.”
The main hall at Folkingham, as befitted the home of so close a kinsman of the Count of Flanders, was a large, well-proportioned chamber, hung with rich, Flemish tapestries. The wood panels and beams, high tables and chairs and benches, were all decorated with wonderfully detailed, yet fantastically ugly animal carvings, and the high-backed chairs on the dais seemed to be studded with gold. Already, the high table had been set with fine plate and coloured glass beakers lying at every place. To me, it was a very alien mixture of luxury and grotesque barbarity; but I took a perverse pleasure in the knowledge that my mother would not approve of it. I would describe it vividly in my first letter. Tomorrow.
Now, for supper, the hall was laid out with lots of trestle tables and benches, and it seemed the entire floor was covered with people waiting to take their seats. I could no longer, with justice, accuse the company of dullness. My eyes were quite dazzled by the sea of brilliantly coloured silks and wools adorning the ladies. Much gold and silver winked in the fading sunlight that still peeped in the many windows.
I would not have been surprised to see the men sitting down to supper with swords and scramasaxes at their belts, shields and bows slung at their backs and spears propped against the tables. I hardly knew whether or not to be disappointed by their restraint. Some of the assembled noblemen certainly wore swords, but almost as decoration, and the hilts on display were all of fine wrought metal; some were even jewelled. Otherwise, the only weapons in evidence were the painted and bossed shields on the walls, much as you would expect.
No one could say our entrance upon this surprisingly glittering scene was not effective. I chose to stand for some time just inside the door, in the full glory of my violent red gown, ridiculously festooned with every item of clashing jewellery I could find; and Lucy, perforce, had to wait nervously with me, while heads turned in our direction, one after the other, more and more of them in rapid succession – including the lady Matilda’s, gratifyingly appalled before the smile managed to resurface. The babble of voices and cheerful laughter sank, paused in near silence for what seemed to be several seconds, and then rose again with renewed vigour.
The first voice I heard clearly came from a woman standing near me at the door. With a tinkling, very feminine little laugh it said to her companion, “Oh my dear, is that the bride? Well, what can one expect from the biggest swamp in Europe? Poor Robert! But what a charming couple they will make!”
I did not mind the opinion; it was the one I was seeking after all. It was the calculated malice behind it that threw me, so that although I turned my head boldly to look directly at her, I could think of no words. She was young, tall and graceful, slender and plump in all the right places, with bright, sparkling blue eyes that were used, I thought, to laughing, even if only at other people, and a charmingly full-lipped mouth. She wore amber silk, finely embroidered with green and gold leaves, and fastened with rather beautiful gold inlaid brooches. Necklaces of gold and pearls hung between her breasts. And though the veil of the matron was apparent, it hung loosely on her head to reveal the luxuriant chestnut locks beneath.
And at her side, surely, the husband: tall, dark, short-haired, good-looking. He had the grace to blush for his wife, whose smirk had become slightly fixed under my continuous stare.
Lucy whispered breathlessly, “The lady Edith. Ignore her. Her husband, Godric of Lincoln, is an important man, so the lady tolerates her. No more.”
Here she pulled me physically forward to greet with enthusiastic affection two people whom I took to be her parents – a still pretty but tired looking lady with a permanent frown, called Aediva; and Leofric, a tall, fierce man in the Saxon-Danish style, whom I thought not incapable of causing and maintaining that frown of his wife’s.
From old habit, I accepted Lucy’s introduction courteously enough. Then Aediva’s polite, “Let me present my son . . .” made me glance hastily at the figure beside her.
Not the golden youth from the roof, but a much younger lad, barely my own age, with hair as fair as Lucy’s – and his tongue protruding charmingly in the direction of his sister. Under my gaze, it vanished sharply, and the lips around it grinned.
“Alfred,” said Lucy with resignation, as if she had long ago accepted that she was not to be fortunate in brothers.
“Is Hereward here?” Alfred demanded by way of greeting. “Is it true he started a battle from the hall roof and split open Roger FitzGeoffrey’s head?”
Lucy cast a quick, nervous glance at her father, who muttered something under his breath and glared ferociously back at the heads that had turned sharply at the sound of his delinquent son’s name. Or perhaps at the injured man’s.
Alfred said impatiently, “Well? Did he roll Roger off the roof?”
Lucy hissed, “Alfred, be silent!”
I said helpfully, “I understand he flew off. Or perhaps he was the slitherer?” And Alfred let out a crack of delighted laughter. Aediva closed her eyes. Leofric muttered something enraged that sounded like, “White Christ!”
I was seated beside my betrothed at the high table. More surprisingly, on our hosts’ other side sat Lucy’s parents, clearly special and honoured friends. I was still digesting this when Robert sat down clumsily at my side.
“Did you win all the contests?” I enquired amiably. “Or just the archery?” In the pregnant silence, I at last spared him a glance. His weak eyes had narrowed, and there was a spark of irritation there that convinced me that this time his reply would be blistering. My breath caught.
And then, infuriatingly, the outer door burst open and someone erupted into the hall, and at once, by his very presence, caused a violent stir: the golden youth, Lucy’s brother, Hereward.
I had the feeling that this wretched boy would always draw attention to himself, even without such nefarious exploits as this afternoon’s. It was something in the powerful urgency of his step – like some unpredictable beast whose ferocity is only temporarily contained – combined with the careless pride of his tilted head. And the weird, irregular beauty, for that was there too. I had noticed no such thing this afternoon, but it was certainly glaring at me now, beneath the bruises and the half-scrubbed grime.
He had not even bothered to change his dress for the occasion. Only his slightly discoloured face and grazed, powerfully muscled bare arms appeared to have been anywhere near water, and he still wore the battered leather tunic, spattered with mud and blood and God knew what else.
Everyone looked, and everyone saw. And heard, for after a sudden upsurge in noise as he strode in, the chatter all dropped away to an expectant silence, into which we could hear his shoes thud across the floor, scattering rushes, and his sword and barbaric knives clank at his hip as he brushed past the tables. He could only have been sixteen years old.
Suddenly, Robert’s chair scraped back. I thought he rose involuntarily, appalled by the late and unwanted guest. But Hereward saw him immediately, and swung round in our direction.
It was only as I watched it vanish from his face that I realized he had been angry. Then he grinned, the same radiant, impudent grin I remembered from the roof.
In his own language, he called out, “Where is she then, Rob? Is she hideous? Does she squint like a bag of nails? Does she screech like a shrew with toothache?”
This time, the silence was definitely appalled – not least, I suspected, because there was more than a grain of truth in Hereward’s unflattering description. Only I was unperturbed, for the spite was not inspired by me but by whatever hidden anger was churning him up; I understood that perfectly.
Somewhere, somebody giggled. The lady Edith again? Robert’s hand lifted and floundered helplessly. The youth Hereward, coming to a halt before us, continued to gaze up at him innocently, the laughter slowly dying in his stormy eyes – strange, mismatched eyes, I could see now that he was close enough. One was a sharp, wintry blue, the other a definite, boiling grey; like two shades of the same violent sea.
An embarrassing scene beckoned. Deliberately, I stood up.
I said, “I believe I don’t squint. I do, however, have a facility for languages.”
The strange, intense eyes shifted quickly to me, and rested without blinking – or apology.
He said mildly, “Do you, by God?”
He had, I saw, very long, almost womanly lashes, darker than his hair and slightly incongruous in that hard, curiously asymmetrical young face. I had no way of telling if he recognized me from the afternoon.
Robert made an odd, strangled sound in his throat. On his other side, I could hear the lady Matilda furiously whispering.
Hereward, still examining me, said consideringly, “You’re very small.”
I blinked. “Yes? But then I am twelve years old. What is your excuse?”
His height, in fact, was neither tall nor short. I only picked it as a point of insult because he brought the subject up and I aimed to shock. I succeeded too, though not, it turned out, for quite the reasons I was imagining.
At my words, startlement leapt out of his brilliant face. His eyes sprang involuntarily to Robert’s, and he uttered, “Twelve?” in accents that left me in no doubt of his amazement, or of the fact that he expected Robert to share it.
And abruptly, all the tiny things fell into place. The shock of my arrival, which could hardly, after all, have been entirely unexpected; the fixed smiles of the lady Matilda; the elusive anger of her genial husband. They had been misled by my own desperate parents. They did not want me. They wanted someone who could be married now, to allow Robert, and therefore Gilbert, some real control in my father’s affairs now. The knowledge should have brought me hope; so why was it I just felt smaller and more isolated than ever?
The entire hall seemed oppressive, unnaturally dark with the sinking of the sun; and the grotesquely ugly wolves, or dragons, or whatever they were, carved into the beams above my head, and the walls on either side of me, seemed to take on expressions of extreme malevolence, as though closing in upon me for the kill. I could not imagine ever wanting anything as much as I wanted to be out of there . . .
I started violently as cool fingers touched my hand. They were Hereward’s, quickly and efficiently prising mine off the table. Only then did I realize I was gripping it so hard that my knuckles shone white.
And Hereward himself, vitality still blazing out of his wild eyes, was grinning at me with more amusement than anything else. I found, pathetically, that I was grateful to him.
“Lady,” he said, as he raised my hand and soundly kissed it. “Young lady – I salute you.”
Falling back into my seat, I took time to gather my breath and my wits, and what was left of my poor pride. And when I could take an interest again, I realized that Matilda was talking, lightly and easily; yet with morbid sensitivity, I sensed the nervousness behind it.
She was saying, “I have a most fitting punishment for you! I send you from my table, Hereward! You lose your place of honour as champion, and are banished forthwith to sit with – your brother! And that only on condition you greet your parents with proper respect and affection.”
Beside me, Robert muttered something under his breath.
Hereward’s eyes turned slowly, as though reluctantly, upon his mother, then quickly on to his father.
I leaned back in my chair in order to see better, but there was no visible emotion in the boy’s face, or in his voice as he said, “If my parents wish to receive it, then they have it."
Perhaps if there had been the remotest trace of contrition or appeal, he might have got away with it, for the words themselves were not ungracious; but as it was, their coldly spoken tone acted as tinder on his father, who suddenly exploded.
“I am sick of receiving it, for it is worthless!”
“Leofric . . .” The word formed soundlessly on Aediva’s faded lips; but Hereward didn’t even flinch. He just shrugged.
“Then don’t,” he said carelessly, and turned away from them.
“You see?” said Leofric with contempt. “What is the point in continually forgiving him? He crowns every sin with another until this of yesterday!” His voice rose, like that of a priest pronouncing damnation. “Well, this time, I swear before you all, before God Himself, that I will accept him back now only on my conditions. Namely, his abject apology, the return of all he stole from me, and the surrender of his sword.”
There was a universal ripple, almost a gasp – of shock, or dismay, or just insatiable curiosity.
“What do you want with my sword?” Hereward said insolently into the still rising buzz of comment. “You already have everything else I own.”
“You own nothing!” Leofric flashed. “Nothing that is not given by me!”
“I do now,” said Hereward provokingly – referring no doubt to whatever it was he had stolen. I thought his father would burst. So did Gilbert, apparently, for our host said hastily, “Get to your place, Hereward. We are all hungry.”
Hereward shrugged and sauntered with deliberate impudence on his way.
“What,” I said curiously to Robert, “has he done?”
“Ask him,” said Robert shortly.
I stood up purposefully, and at once several eyes turned on me in surprise. The servants with the washing bowls paused, eyes flying to their mistress for guidance.
Robert’s hand jerked me back into my seat. “Be still, in God’s name,” he breathed.
“Then tell me.”
“I would need days to tell you all he has done!”
“I only want to know why his father won’t forgive him. He said he stole from him.”
Robert said reluctantly, “I suppose he did.” Quickly looking about him, he added low, “They have been quarrelling for years over Hereward’s behaviour. They say he provokes discontent among the lesser people, taking their sides against their lords, defending their every minuscule right. Which inevitably leads his parents into all sorts of fights with their noble neighbours. Periodically, Leofric gets fed up and throws him out.”
“Ah,” I said, pleased to have the mystery of the unchanged clothes solved at least.
“This time, “ Robert continued, getting impatiently to the point before the washing bowl came to him, “he threw out all Hereward’s friends and companions with him. Hereward had nothing with which to support them, so yesterday . . .” He paused and drew breath, then lowered his voice still further, so that I had to bow my head to hear him at all. “Yesterday he went and collected some of the tributes due to his father and distributed them among his own men.”
I felt my eyes widen. “An ingenious and amoral youth,” I observed.
“You know nothing,” said Robert contemptuously, submitting to the hand-washing ritual. Interestingly, Hereward’s confrontations seemed to have abolished Robert’s tolerance of me. I supposed hopefully that it was progress. Until we sat down I hadn’t even managed to elicit a mild retort from him. And supper was not over yet.
It was a bright, pleasant spring morning to be riding. Maddeningly enough. I would have preferred rain and fog, so that I could, with some justification, wallow in my hatred of the place. With my melancholy betrothed as escort, I was being taken on an expedition to Crowland Abbey, a remote monastery in the midst of the fens, founded, so the lady Emma had informed me, by St. Guthlac.
“Who was he? Some masochistic hermit?” I had demanded rudely.
“Actually,” said Emma coldly, “he was a prince of the Mercian royal house.”
I did not like their fen. It resembled too closely the marshes of home, only it was poorly drained, largely unreclaimed, and stretched as far as the eye could see. It’s sheer size alone made me feel small, which hardly improved my temper.
When our horses had left the old Roman road and began to pick their way through damp marsh paths, skirting hamlets of tiny, sunken huts, I determinedly paid no attention to the big over-hanging willows or to the really quite attractively glinting pools which could be made out in the distance. From the corner of my eye, I did catch some odd, isolated sights, including a man striding over the marshy land on stilts, and another who vaulted over obstacles in his path by means of a long, wooden pole, but those I refused to acknowledge. Instead, I noted with interest that Robert was riding very close to Lucy.
And then, quite abruptly, a group of men seemed to rise threateningly out of the reeds ahead of us.
I heard Lucy gasp.
Then I realized that two of the men, who must have been bending down for some time to have remained hidden from us until now, had reached back to pull a third up to join them, as if from some way down. And almost immediately, this third was enthusiastically clapped on the back by the rest of the group, not withstanding his almost total covering in mud.
It became clear to me then that none of them even saw us, let alone threatened us.
The third man shook his head like a dog, causing mud to fly in all directions, and through it, I saw the shining gold of his hair – some small patch freakishly saved from the filth – caught in the shaft of sunlight which wriggled through the trees on our left.
Matilda turned sharply in the direction of my gaze. So did the others. Emma muttered something under her breath. At the same time, the fenmen became aware of us. One of them laconically pushed Hereward’s shoulder, and the youth, breaking off from some explanation that involved much gesticulating, looked round and saw us.
Interestingly, I thought he swore. Certainly there was no response to Lucy’s joyful cry of his name. Relief seemed to be flooding out of her very pores now, as if she had been imagining him shivering himself into an ague in the night.
I couldn’t imagine any such thing. The last I had seen of him, he had looked massively healthy and almost outrageously comfortable, lounging back on his bench, feet up on the table and tipping wine haphazardly into a drinking horn with his toes, while he called out irreverent and frequently ribald remarks to the Saxon poet who had entertained us during supper with stirring and melancholy verse. His antics had appeared to inspire annoyance in some quarters, amusement in others. Even the poet himself hadn’t seemed clear as to whether or not to be offended.
Now, Lucy began the surge towards him, Robert at her side; but rather than meet it, he actually turned his back, quite deliberately.
“What are you doing out here so filthily?” Robert demanded amiably, apparently undeterred by the other’s blatant rudeness. I suppose it explained his imperviousness to mine.
“Sewering,” said Hereward shortly over his shoulder. With extreme reluctance he half-turned back towards us, though his eyes were wintry, unwelcoming. Some northern, icy sea.
Closer now, I could make out that the fenmen stood beside a channel dug through the watery land around them, and stretching in both directions as far as I could see.
“It doesn’t work,” I observed flatly, and the hard, disconcertingly different eyes flickered over me without interest.
“It will now,” he said briefly. “We unblocked it.”
“With your head?” Robert asked humorously, and the youth smiled in a cold, perfunctory sort of a way that didn’t get near his eyes. He was irritated by our presence here. Whether because of his company, or his dirt, or his behaviour yesterday, or some other cause, I didn’t know. Or care.
“The lady Matilda of Ghent,” he observed offhandedly to his companions. “Better make your bows to her before she goes.”
And he jumped deliberately back into the ditch, reaching into the murky water to fish out some long, spiky tool on a wooden pole. This time he leapt up again unaided, with the same peculiarly wild grace he seemed to bring to everything physical. Over-developed muscles in his arms rippled through their coating of mud. His legs, bare and brown and wet, were like tree trunks.
“And to the child-bride,” he added, causing my eyes to fly resentfully to his. They were smiling now, maliciously. Following Matilda’s example, I sniffed, though much more productively than she. In fact, I didn’t mind in the least being the scapegoat for his ill-nature. It made my own simpler.
“What about Emma and me?” Lucy was demanding indignantly. Her brother lifted one arched eyebrow at her.
“Why should they bow to you? You don’t frighten me in the least.”
“I wish someone did,” Matilda retorted. It seemed she was ready for the fight now. “Before you turn the whole of Mercia against your parents!”
“Oh oh,” Hereward mocked insolently. “You are going to beat me – verbally but mercilessly – over yesterday afternoon.”
“Don’t you think someone should? You know perfectly well your behaviour was abominable! What have you got to say for yourself?”
Hereward appeared to think. “It wasn’t my fault?” he suggested, with no pretence whatever of truth. “Or – it was in self-defence?”
“Rubbish!” Matilda said angrily.
“Actually,” I said delicately, for I had spied a new means of annoying her, “it probably was. Self defence.”
Inevitably, all eyes swung on me, with varying degrees of surprise. Gratified, I deigned to explain. “Just before the – er – war, I saw some five or six men fall on him from behind.”
Though I wasn’t looking at him, oddly enough it was of Hereward’s unblinking regard that I was most aware. Robert was frowning. Emma’s mouth had fallen open. Matilda turned sharply towards me.
“I expect,” I said kindly, turning my gaze at last upon the delinquent himself, “I expect they eventually cornered you against the back wall of the hall, forcing you on to the roof for your own safety.”
There was a pause, during which I tried and failed to read the expression in his strange, intensely mismatched eyes. Then he said obligingly, “I expect they did.”
I heard Matilda breathe in deeply. “Is this true?” she demanded.
“I couldn’t dispute the word of the child-bride,” Hereward said apologetically. Having caught my eyes, he seemed reluctant to release them, and I wasn’t going to back down.
Matilda repeated, “Is it true?”
And at that, he let me go to turn to her; but even then, instead of answering her question, he posed another, quite abruptly. “Will you tell Gilbert?”
She stared back at him. “Why didn’t you?”
The ridiculously long lashes swept down over his smooth cheek, then flickered up once more. “A previous quarrel got in the way.”
Matilda’s brief softening was over. “And that’s another thing,” she fumed. “What are you going to do about your father?”
Hereward smiled dazzlingly through his mud. “Send in the child-bride to make my excuses?”
“If,” I said pleasantly, into the sniggers of the fenmen and the servants and the men-at-arms, and the slightly shocked giggles of my companions, “If you call me that once more, I shall cut out your tongue. Through your ears.”
“Torfrida!” cried Matilda, properly shocked this time, but she was drowned out by Hereward’s shout of laughter.
* * * *
Hereward refused to come to Crowland with us – on the presumably reasonable grounds that the Abbot was liable to clap him in chains – though he did come with us part of the way, striding along in the midst of the horses, exerting himself to entertain. In fact, he turned out to be rather funny.
He made no effort to speak to me, though, and I made no effort at all, except to be nasty whenever opportunity offered. Only once, as he swung along beside Robert, did I hear my betrothed exclaim, “Spirit? You try sitting beside her for two hours! The girl is relentless!”
I managed to look away before Hereward’s gaze found me, but I don’t think I had wiped the smile off my face.
Emerging from a thick clump of trees onto much more marshy paths, we finally saw the abbey. It stood on an island – little more than a green hillock, I thought disparagingly – rising out of a murky lake. Some people might have found it picturesque, for there was a sort of still, lonely distinction to the scene; I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate holiness.
“Bourne is that way,” Lucy informed me, pointing vaguely away from the river. “Just on the edge of the fen.” She looked at me expectantly. “So, what do you think?”
I curled my lip.
“I think there will be flies,” I said shortly.
“Optimism,” said Hereward, appearing suddenly between our horses, “is such a blessing in the young.”
Without invitation or instruction, his hands were on my waist, lifting me out of the saddle. He was little more than a boy, yet the strength rippling through those brawny arms made me feel like a piece of straw plucked helplessly out of the air by a mischievous wind. It did not improve my temper.
As my feet landed, I glared at him with quite genuine irritation, and he paused, holding me still while he regarded me, his fair head slightly on one side. I suspected that, young as he was, other people found it hard to withstand that peculiarly forceful gaze. I was glad to be made of sterner stuff.
Unexpectedly, he lifted his hand from my waist and touched my one eyebrow with a large, unclean thumb, unhurriedly tracing its long, thick line from one side to the other, and then returning to its middle across the bridge of my nose, where the thumb stopped, and lightly pressed.
“What is it,” he wondered, “that pulls down this frown of yours so constantly? The weight of the splendid eyebrow?”
My mother had tried to pluck it before I left. I had only got away by swearing I would do it myself on the journey. I think that was what brought the blood seeping up to my cheeks. That, or the fact I did not care to be laughed at.
Hereward’s finger fell away, but his other hand did not release me.
He said lazily, “There is no need to be so frightened, you know. You might even find that your parents have not made such a bad bargain for you.”
Stricken. So much armour, so much effort, and all it took was the careless, mismatched eyes of a delinquent boy.
I closed my mouth, still bereft of words, still bombarded by a mass of confused emotions, the chief of which seemed to be that he had no right to say I was frightened, no right at all.
Still he was not finished with me. Leaning forward so that his breath actually tickled my cheek, he whispered, “Besides, they won’t send you home, however ill you behave. They are too honourable. I should know.”
“Torfrida?” It was Lucy, pushing my pony out of the way to get to us. “Hereward, leave her alone; she’s not used to you.”
“Oh, I think she is,” Hereward said, stepping back. A smile danced across his face. He closed one eye – the blue one – so quickly that if I had blinked myself, I would have missed it, and then he had turned away, saying regretfully, “On the other hand, I think it’s time I stopped teasing all of you. I’m off, back to my lair. See you next week, Rob? In Lincoln . . .”
“Lair?” said Lucy revolted, while I let out my breath and wondered in panic what had just happened to me. “Wait, Hereward!” she shouted after his grimy, retreating back. “Hereward? You’re not – you’re not going to rob someone?”
He didn’t even turn, though his laughter came back to us clearly enough. So did his carelessly called reply: “Not unless I come upon a fat abbot, or a sleek Norman. Or, even better, a fat, sleek Norman abbot!” And then he was striding back the way we had come, leaving me to wonder distractedly what peculiar grudge he could possibly hold against fat abbots.
But I was glad at his going. I felt quite strongly that I never wanted to set eyes – or ears – on him again.
* * * *
Bourne, the hall from which Lucy’s family held together innumerable scattered properties, was a pleasant place, comparable in size if not in comfort with Folkingham. But here were no Flemish tapestries. All the decoration was quite fiercely English – crude hangings, animal-like carvings and rough wall-paintings of brilliant reds and blues and yellows. But at least the feast to which we were bidden was unstinting in both quantity and quality. And to my relief, there was no sign of the errant elder son, invited or otherwise, so I felt able to relax, just a little.
In the interests of a peaceful meal, no doubt, the lady Aediva had separated me from my betrothed, placing me between the youthful Alfred and a plump clergyman of uncertain years who was introduced with casual disrespect simply as Brand. I wondered if I were being punished. The clergyman, however, persisted through all my monosyllables and silences and curt replies of undisguised boredom, until, pushing my bread away, I turned my head to look at him.
He smiled peacefully, and a small piece of fish tumbled off his lip to join a considerable proportion of the previous courses on his chest. He had a round, smooth moon-face beneath a shiny tonsure, and large, amiable eyes, blinking sleepily at me. I may be slow, but I am not stupid.
“You are not, I think, the family chaplain,” I observed. His disordered eyebrows heaved themselves up in surprise, then collapsed again with the effort.
I waited, but the old buffoon was determined to make me ask. Nothing loathe, I said bluntly, “Who are you then?”
Brand wiped his fingers on his habit. Some breadcrumbs leapt up in alarm and resettled themselves more comfortably about his person, or on the table or the floor nearby.
“Brand,” he said, holding out his hand to me. We had done this already. I wasn’t sure whether or not he was joking, but I chose to take the hand – gingerly, for I had no idea what lurked there.
“Torfrida,” I said gravely. For a moment I thought I would have to ask again, but he had obviously tired of the game.
Dropping my fingers, he said, “I have the honour to be Aediva’s brother. Aediva,” he added kindly, “is your hostess.”
“Thank you,” I said politely. “It is more comfortable to know.”
“Exactly. I have also,” he continued ponderously, “the almost as grave responsibility of being Provost of Peterborough Abbey. Which is why I am here today, visiting our cell by the village.”
I blinked. I said curiously, “Do you get on with your elder nephew?”
Again the eyebrows lumbered up and fell with a silent crash.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the Provost of Peterborough mildly. “No one gets on with Hereward. Why do you ask?”
“Fat abbots,” said Alfred, unexpectedly and succinctly on my other side.
“I am getting on in years,” Brand said peaceably. “I am allowed to be fat. I may even be allowed to be an abbot one day. But still, in my current, lowly position, I am allowed – nay, positively encouraged – to beat boys for impudence.”
Alfred cast me a careless, Lucy-like grin, though I noticed he ducked rather swiftly back to Emma.
“Ah,” said Brand with satisfaction. “Roast duck. Excellent. Now then, young lady – tell me the gossip from Flanders. What is the opinion there about the English succession?”
“Indifference, I should think,” I said dryly, and watched his eyebrows struggle briefly. Apparently deciding it was not worth the effort this time, he only twitched them.
“Really?” he marvelled. “Yet surely there would be untold advantages for your people if William of Normandy became king here?”
“Maybe,” I allowed. “But I doubt it keeps them awake at night worrying. King Edward is hardly on his last legs, is he? The next ruler . . .”
“Next?” Alfred interrupted again. “King Edward doesn’t rule now! He prays and builds abbeys. Harold of Wessex rules.”
“Hold your tongue, ignorant boy. The King,” Brand added to me, “is advised by his chief nobles . . .”
“Harold of Wessex!” Alfred repeated triumphantly.
“And our own Earl,” Brand said mildly. “Only a silly boy would write off Leofric of Mercia.”
“Leofric is old,” Alfred said stubbornly.
“He has Aelfgar to succeed him.”
“Aye, with boat loads of Irish or Welsh at his back! Or even, God forgive him, Norwegians!”
Half-heartedly, Brand swiped some unsuspecting crumbs off his chest and reached for his duck. “You have been listening to Hereward,” he observed.
“No I haven’t!” Alfred protested, and when his uncle looked at him speakingly over a duck leg, he added defensively, “It is my father’s opinion that Mercia is no longer capable of balancing the ambitions of Wessex. It is my opinion too!”
“Oh well, if it’s yours,” Brand said sarcastically. “But we were not discussing over-powerful subjects. We were discussing kings.”
I said quickly, “What is there to discuss? If King Edward has no children . . .”
“He won’t,” said Alfred irrepressibly. “It would involve lying with his wife.”
“Well,” Brand confessed, distracted, “I’d as soon lie with a snake myself as with one of Godwin’s brood.”
I looked at him. “But then you,” I reminded him, “are a monk.”
A smile flickered through his round face. “So I am.”
“And Edward might as well be,” said Alfred. “So – no children.”
I said, “Then there is only William to succeed, his nearest full-grown relation of any standing. And he is promised it, is he not?”
“So, they say, was Eustace of Boulogne,” Brand said apologetically. “And I don’t see the King of Norway sitting still when the throne of Canute’s kingdom is vacant again. And then there is the Aethling . . .”
“Who won’t leave his comfortable home in Hungary,” I said wryly. “Forget your Aethling. Actually, you would be wise to. William the Bastard is an ill man to cross. But what is the point of guessing? Who knows what will happen in ten or twenty years or whenever King Edward dies?”
“God and the astrologers,” said Brand flippantly. He slapped his lips over a minutely clean bone and dropped it on the table. “I can’t speak for the All Mighty, of course, but the astrologers seem to be in favour of William the Bastard.”
I looked at him sideways. “How many astrologers do you know?”
“Oh, two or three,” he said vaguely.
I laid down my duck wing carefully, gazing at it as if I expected it to fly off at any moment. I said, “Can they really predict the future that way?”
“Some of it. If they ask the right questions.”
I looked up at him thoughtfully through my lashes. It was an idea I had had before. Something told me it could not be mere chance that brought it to my attention again here. At any rate, I saw no harm in testing it.
I said shrewdly, “Do you ask the right questions?”
He smiled faintly. “My studies involve the prediction of nothing more or less momentous than Easter or the matins bell.”
He was not, of course, being strictly honest. Even then I knew that no one of intelligence could cut such studies off there. Smiling back, I pursued him.
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