Godfrew sat at the top table with Dagobert, checking the books and accounting for the plunder that Earl Edric had amassed from the summer's raiding. With his arm still not strong, Godfrew found himself becoming more and more of a clerk and administrator as time went by. The role suited him, as it kept him at the holding and Elfgifu had become very dependent on him. She seemed to need his help with all of the tasks involving the baby, with the exception breast feeding. Even here, his wife was having problems, but Elfgifu refused to let a wet-nurse suckle her son. She preferred to introduce the boy to solids earlier than most mothers would.
Many of the tasks were ones better suited to Oakleaf, but Elfgifu seemed to have developed a strong dislike for her young cousin and rarely asked her to do anything. Even more rarely, would she accept Oakleaf's offers of help. Sometimes, when given a task to do that seemed to be more of a woman's job, Godfrew passed it on to Oakleaf without his wife knowing. Oakleaf seemed to enjoy the deception. Godfrew felt that the young maid was not the problem that Elfgifu sometimes made her out to be, but Elfgifu was right about Oakleaf's tendency to disappear and not be around when she was needed. Even today, Godfrew had been looking in the kitchen for the girl. He needed some finely chopped greens for Jaul, but it seemed that she had taken some hot soup to Lady Gondul an hour ago and had not returned. Godfrew had started to chop the greens himself, but was so clumsy that one of the kitchen women took pity on him and chopped them up instead. On his way back to the hall from delivering the greens to Elfgifu, he had looked in at the kitchen again, but Oakleaf had still not returned.
"Don't look so worried, young Wulf." Dagobert put down the ale horn and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "If you worry any more, the rest of your hair will go white. Not that there is much of it that isn't white now. It's a shame about the bald patch of yours, too."
"Bald patch?" Godfrew put his left hand to his pate and felt. "What bald patch? I am not going bald!"
"Of course not." Dagobert tipped the dregs of his ale onto the stale bread in front of him. As soon as it looked as if the bread had softened, he ventured to eat it, being careful to keep it away from the two back teeth that had become very sore recently. "You only wear a hat, or that hooded cloak of yours to keep the sun out of your eyes. It has nothing to do with your hair falling out on top."
"Yes, I do ... and no, it is not!" The indignant Godfrew again felt his pate. It seemed sufficiently hairy to him. "Besides, I have always had very fine hair."
"Yeah, so fine it looks as if you are going bald." Dagobert winced as he accidentally bit on a cracked barley grain. "I will have to see the blacksmith soon. I can't keep this up for ever." Dagobert leaned over, picked up Godfrew's ale horn and tipped a small amount of the drink on the rest of his bread.
"I am NOT going bald!" Godfrew was still running his hand over his head. Satisfied that Dagobert must have been teasing, he used his right hand to recover his ale. As long as he was careful, Godfrew was starting to regain the use of his favoured side. "Thinking of going to the blacksmith, eh?" Godfrew went on the offensive. "You were saying that when I first came back. Then it was 'After Yuletide'. Don't tell me the famous house carl, the great Dagobert Fearnaught, reputed dragon slayer, is frightened of having his teeth pulled?" Having worked closely with the manor reeve since his return, Godfrew was on very friendly terms with Dagobert, terms almost as friendly as that between the reeve and his ex-comrades in the Earl's hearth troop.
"I never said I was a dragon slayer. I said I was a Dago slayer. Things were quiet here one year. Earl Edric hired me and some of the boys out to the Dublin Norse for raids against the Moors in southern Spain. Few came back, but those that did were very rich." Dagobert picked up the sloppy bread and sucked it into his mouth. A few crumbs dropped to the floor and Shock slipped from under the table to retrieve them.
"Which is why you are here with me counting someone else's profits." Godfrew finished his ale and put the horn down. It was a beautifully made piece with the lip and point overlaid in chased gold-old-fashioned, but beautiful.
"The Earl took his cut-as was his right-but I do have some stashed away somewhere in case I need it. The truth is, I like it here. I have spent most of my life either in the Earl's service, or that of his father. Now I am a bit too old to fight. Don't let the hair fool you. My wife washes it in a special herbal brew that allows it to keep its colour. No, I am too old to fight. It is good to be given a job that gives me some power without too much physical exercise." Dagobert decided to resume work and pulled his book toward him, together with some tally sticks from the wool cloth store.
"And keeps you near your Lady Gondul?" Godfrew probed.
Dagobert became very serious. "Never joke about that one, Wulf. Not even when you think you are alone." He drew very close and whispered in Godfrew's ear: "The little games between the Lady and I are but small things. I durst not touch her, nor dare any other man here. The Earl allows her to have her amusements and her maids, but never think of going near her yourself. Any man who touches the Lady would provide an awful amusement for Earl Edric the Savage." Dagobert looked around the hall to ensure there was no one else near. "A man once accidentally brushed against her-not a slave or a serf-but a messenger from one of the Welsh princes. It took five days for him to die!"
"I think, Master Reeve, I had better keep my mind on my job." Godfrew pulled his book toward himself and checked the balance.
"It would be wise." Having completed the conversation, Dagobert visibly relaxed and even started to whistle as he worked.
"Working hard, Dagobert?" Lady Gondul's bell-like voice tinkled in the men's ears.
"Oh, indeed, my Lady." Dagobert directed a beaming smile at his mistress.
Gondul stood behind him, looking over his shoulder at the book with her eyes running up and down the columns. Once she had completed her scrutiny, she ran her fingers through the reeve's hair, then started to slowly part the flowing chestnut mane. "Dagobert."
"My lady?" Dagobert tried to look up at Gondul, but she was too far back.
"Your roots are showing. Tell your wife to wash your hair again."
"You will need to look your best, Dagobert, my trusted reeve, when we visit the cattle being held near Clunn. Clunn? Don't we have a house carl called Clunn?"
"A wee black rat, Lady, who likes his cheese too much." Dagobert closed his eyes and enjoyed the hair massage he was getting as the Lady Gondul sought out more grey roots in his thatch.
"Ah, yes. I can place him now. When you see him next, tell him if I catch him sniffing around my favourite cheeses again, it won't be just his nose that will be cut off. Master Wulf," Gondul acknowledged Godfrew for the first time, "where was I?" The massage was getting more powerful and Dagobert's head was rocking backwards and forwards.
"You are taking Dagobert to visit the cattle at Clunn, my Lady."
"Oh, yes, so I was." Gondul suddenly let go of Dagobert's locks and he almost fell face first onto the table. "Dagobert, I am concerned at the possibility of the new stock breeding before I have had a chance to vet them. I have no intention of letting inferior bulls loose to mate with anything and everything." Gondul picked up Dagobert's eating knife from the table. "Those not suitable will have to be disabled." The knife slashed down onto an apple, cutting it cleanly in half. "If you see what I mean." Gondul stood at Godfrew's side and put forward her cool hand with its long delicate fingers. She touched, then stroked, the stump of Godfrew's severed finger. "It is interesting, Wulf, the way they have folded the skin over the stump. It is so neat and tidy." She stroked some more. "Normally, when I see severed fingers, they are rough and jagged. I do believe that this is the first time I have seen, let alone touched, one that had been cleaned up." She then turned and smiled sweetly at Godfrew. "See that Dagobert is clean, tidy and ready at cock-crow tomorrow morning." The Lady Gondul went as silently as she had arrived.
"You heard, Master Reeve." Godfrew himself looked at his stumpy finger. Often it felt as though the bone was trying to push its way through the pad of flesh that had been formed at the end, especially when it was cold, like today. "Where was I? Oh, yes, be ready, Master Reeve, for I am under instructions from the Lady Gondul herself to ensure that you are ready on time. If need be, I shall have to winkle you out of your sleeping hut, even if I have to pry you off of your beloved lady wife!"
"It isn't me that will need chasing to be ready on time. It will be that hoary old hearth troop leader of hers, Wendlewulf." Dagobert counted the notches in the first tally stick and noted it in his book.
"And who will I have to pry him off of? The Lady Gondul's little maid with no tits?" Godfrew's tone was only half joking.
"Only if the Lady is with the Earl and his ladies tonight." Dagobert started counting the next stick.
"He is a big man for such a little wench. I'm surprised he doesn't break her back when he mounts her." Godfrew had still not re-started work and watched Dagobert's face, seeking to watch his expression.
Dagobert lost count. When he spoke again, his voice was a trifle agitated. "He doesn't mount her. He can't mount her any more than he could mount the other flat-chested young maids that ..." Dagobert dropped his stick and moved closer to Godfrew: "... any of the other flat-chested young maids that have kept the good Lady Gondul warm at night when the Earl did not need her."
"Can't?" Godfrew's voice matched the deep whisper of Dagobert's.
"Look, many years ago, when he was one of Earl Edric's house carls, we were raiding deep into the Welsh princedom of Powys. We had taken a small town ... I forget the name ... the wogs counter attacked. Well, we all got out fast, except Wendlewulf. He was caught coupling with the local gentry's eldest daughter against her wishes. If it had been us and we had caught one of them doing the same, we would have killed him, slowly of course. They didn't." Dagobert took a glance around to make sure that there was no one else within earshot.
"They castrated him?" suggested Godfrew.
"No, more than that. Let's just say that next time he gets a skin full of beer and needs to let it out, follow him out to the bushes. Whilst you will be letting it all hang out, he will squat!" Dagobert picked up his fallen stick.
"If he can't mount the maids, then what does he do with them?"
Dagobert put the stick down again. "I don't know. Something no doubt, but not much." Again the furtive glance. "He can't be doing much, the Lady Gondul wouldn't allow it. She only sleeps with young maids with no breasts. As soon as they get past buds, she marries them off to a house carl, but no man dare mountone till then." Dagobert fingered the notches in the stick and looked sideways at Godfrew, waiting to see if he could resume counting or if he was going to get interrupted again.
"I remember the welcoming kiss. I got the impression she sleeps with grown women, too." Godfrew dug, as the question of Lady Gondul's kiss had continued to tease him like a sore tooth. He found that he could not leave it alone-even a year later.
"She 'plays' with grown women, yes ... but does not 'sleep with them' ... as you so delicately put it. But those grown women are always other men's wives or mistresses. And don't ask why!" Dagobert cautioned. "She is not as other women. She has her reasons and she wants them kept secret. I wish to live." Dagobert faced the front and started counting the notches on his stick, indicating that the conversation was over.
"Which you may not do if you are not ready to accompany her at cockcrow tomorrow morning!"
Dagobert sighed, put his finger at the beginning of the stick and began to start recounting yet again. "It won't be me that is late. Go and make sure that Wendlewulf is awake, if you have the balls."
"Which is more than he has?"
"Do you want to remind him of that?" Dagobert waved his stick under Godfrew's nose.
"Not if I want to live." Godfrew picked up his tally stick and started counting.
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