They had laid Martinsfield's dead out in a row, ready for burial. Some, mainly men, showed the injuries expected from combat, sword slashes, spear holes, smashed or severed limbs. Most, however, had been trampled and crushed. Women and children were scored with hoof marks. Elfgifu had gone with the surviving women to lay out the corpses and try to give their remains some semblance of dignity. Godfrew had not been able to bring himself to join her, seeking to avoid looking at the children, particularly Mouse. Instead, he had gone to where the boys and the men who had missed the fight had gathered. These folk had been out with the herds during the fight. Now, they had taken to stripping the dead Normans of their clothes and armour. The bodies had stiffened. When items could not be pulled off easily, the limbs had been broken or cut off to aid in the removal.
Then came the cry: "Horsemen!"
The whole story started over again: the scramble of women gathering children and heading for the security of the scrub land-for none would stay in the village this time. Men got their weapons ready and sought the protection of the buildings. All were ready to fight to protect what was theirs. Godfrew rested his back against the cottage wall and ran a whetstone over Neckbiter's edge, trying to give the blade some semblance of sharpness. His knee had stiffened like the corpses opposite. The spearhead itself had missed, but the bar at the base of the head had hit his knee joint at a strange angle. After the fight, Elfgifu had insisted on looking at the wound, but there was little blood. There was much bruising. Already, it had started to turn black. Godfrew did not fancy his chances of putting up much of a fight this time, particularly if the Normans had brought footmen with them. He ran the whetstone over the blade of the axe again, spitting on it first. The blade had several dents in it where it had bitten through chain mail. Fortunately, most of the Normans had been wearing inferior ring mail coats. Ring mail was good for blocking crossbow bolts at a distance, deflecting spears and absorbing slashing sword blows, but it gave little protection against a bearded Danish long axe, especially one in the hands of a trained warrior. Godfrew gave Neckbiter's edge another stroke of the whet stone.
This time, Elfgifu had gone to the scrub lands to comfort her bereaved cousins. Godfrew had insisted that she keep the saxe with her. He had acquired a double edged knife for himself from a dead Norman. He had also found a helmet and a chain mail coat to replace his own that now lay at his father's feet in Tooting. He wore the helmet, but not the coat, as it was torn and needed the attention of a good armourer. It would be more hindrance than help.
Godfrew stopped his sharpening when he suddenly caught the sound of horses. The horses were being ridden at a walk, so Godfrew completed the stroke. The sound of the horses was now joined by voices-some joking, some laughing. The Martinsfield men moved from the cover of their cottages and came to stand in the main street.
Toward them came a colourful party. The outriders were armed with spears. Chain-mail twinkled under their over shirts, but their helmets were hung over their saddles and the spears were resting on the horse's necks. As they came to the paddock, the outriders fanned out to expose the centre party. In the front rode the obvious leader. He was tall and blond, mounted on a pure white horse with a golden mane. The rider had a short, golden beard and long moustaches that reached his chest, their ends waxed to long points. His chain mail coat shone and he wore a long Frankish cloak in bright blue. The horse, too, was well dressed. Its saddle and harness glinted with silver adornments. Behind the rider came three women, dressed for the hunt, falcons on their wrists, and behind them were more armed men. At one side of the rider walked Llew. On the other side was Evan the Reeve.
Evan's hands were tied behind his back. A wooden stake had been thrust under his arms. The stake had a rope attached to either end and the rider held one rope whilst one of his outriders held the other. They came to a halt. Evan, his eyes standing out on stalks, collapsed to his knees.
"Earl Edric! Earl Edric!" The men rushed to greet their master. The women must have heard the cry, for they too took to calling out his name and came running, children in tow, toward the village.
"Well, good people of Martinsfield. It looks as if you do not need the protection of me and my men." Edric cast his eye over the gathering assembly. He gave a cracked laugh and the village folk joined him. "Mighty warriors, eh?"
"None like you, Lord Edric," someone called out.
"Who said flattery is unimportant?" Edric called over his shoulder.
A small brown-skinned woman moved her pony forward and came alongside the Earl. "Never you, my Lord. Without flattery, life would be very dull." Her eyes were black and Godfrew could not distinguish her pupils. The woman's skin was a dark brown-not the olive colour, common to the Welsh, that turned brown from exposure to the sun. This was a dark skin, almost velvet brown, the like of which he had never seen before.
The man next to Godfrew saw his fascination and whispered in his ear: "Goda, one of Edric's slave women. She was given to him by a Welsh prince, Bleddyn, to buy his help in one of the their incessant fights over inheritance. He never goes anywhere without her."
Edric was laughing again "But, my little wog, I need to know what is flattery and what is lying, surely?"
"Wog, indeed!" Goda's accent was strong and strange. Godfrew had never hear one like it. "My Lord, only this morning you said that I was your precious jewel. Now was that flattery, or lying?"
Edric laughed so much that tears ran down his cheek. "What ever would I do without you?" He wiped his eyes with his hands. The hand holding Evan's rope caught his cheek. Edric looked at it as if he had never seen it before. He pulled on it and, finding resistance, he looked down the rope an arm's length at a time until he saw the unhappy Evan. "Oh, yes, I had almost forgotten you." Evan stood up and faced the Earl. Godfrew could see Evan's face. It held a look of sheer terror. "You have been a naughty boy just once too often to be left in charge of the village, Master Reeve." Edric gave the rope a playful tug, causing Evan to stumble. "But what shall I do with you?" Godfrew expected the villagers to call out for Evan's banishment or death, but they remained silent. "Evan, oh, Evan. It is not the first time is it? Do you remember my having to speak to you last Michael Mass?" He made another tug on the rope. "Evan?"
"Lord Edric." Evan's voice was so quiet it could almost not be heard.
"You promised to behave. Remember?"
"Precious." Edric turned to Goda, who was stroking the feathers of her hooded hawk and clicking her tongue gently as she did so. "What shall I do with Evan?"
Goda continued stroking her bird. "Offer him a different job, my Lord. Something at Lydbury perhaps."
Edric made much of considering the proposal. "I wonder what job I can offer him there?" He leaned over and touched Goda's hand, flustering the hawk. Goda playfully tapped the Earl's hand and wagged her finger at him. Edric pulled back and waited for Goda's reply.
After a long pause, Goda's face lit up. In a bright voice, she announced: "Why not ask you wife? She always seems to have such interesting ideas."
Evan sagged and Edric yanked him upright again. "An excellent idea." Edric threw his rope to an outrider. "Take him back, you two." The riders set off at a trot through the village toward the road across the plain. Evan looked back at the villagers, his eyes wild and full of panic. "And don't wear him out. He will be no good to my wife in a damaged condition." Edric's cracked laugh was short this time. "Now, my good folk, find us food and drink, for we shall stay the night with you. Brother Goshawk, you won't get fed until the dead are buried."
"My Lord," a plump priest rode up on a donkey, his feet almost touching the ground. On seeing the laid out dead bodies, he rode toward them.
"Llewelyn." Edric nudged Llew with his horse "You are the village reeve now. Arrange things." The voice grew louder now. "Boys," Edric waved to the boy with torn breeches and his mates, "take the horses and put them in the paddock." At this, Edric dismounted. So did the rest of the party.
The folk drifted away to prepare for the stay of their master. Godfrew limped back to his cottage, using Neckbiter as a crutch, unsure of what was expected of him. He was worried about Elfgifu and the child she was carrying, hoping the shock of the day's events would not cause her to miscarry.
A hand tapped him on the shoulder. "Oi, the boss wants words with you."
Godfrew turned to find himself facing a short dark youth, fine featured, but with a face marred by a livid scar across his right cheek and a muzzle full of red pimples. The youth nodded toward Edric and started to walk back to the Earl. Edric and the ladies had seated themselves on stools brought for them by the folk. The war-band squatted in a semi-circle behind them. Standing at the far end was Torquil. As Godfrew and his escort neared the group, a rider rode in and spoke to Torquil. Whatever he said was important enough for the leader of the house carls to disturb Edric as he talked and laughed with his ladies. The Earl became serious and questioned Torquil. The answers seemed satisfactory, for Edric nodded agreement to Torquil's whispered suggestion and the leader of the war-band rushed to instruct the rider, who then spurred his horse and disappeared back down the track he had come from.
Godfrew stood in front of Earl Edric, leaning on his long axe for support. His escort had slipped away and joined his squatting companions behind the Earl. Edric seemed not to notice the arrival and continued to exchange flirtatious banter with his ladies. Godfrew shifted the weight on his feet and waited. Eventually, as he turned to answer a comment from the lady on his right, Edric noticed Godfrew standing in front of him. He gave a second take. "Oh, my dear man, have you been waiting long? I am so remiss. These dear ladies are so charming that everything else passes me by. A stool!" He called out to Torquil. "A stool for this poor man. He has an injured leg. You can't leave him standing there, get him a stool." Torquil sent a young warrior to get one. "Wulf, isn't it? Your cousin Llewelyn was telling me what a splendid fight you put up against those thieving Normans. Very well done. And so they should be." Edric threw back his head and a cracked laugh echoed out.
"Now, I believe that you are leasing grazing from me. At an excellent price too, from what Dagobert the Reeve tells me. Now, young man," Edric leaned forward and fondled his pointed beard, "I would like to make you an alternative offer." The small sapphire-blue eyes were hard and bright. "Life is going to be, shall we say exciting in these parts for a while. Rather than stay here and watch the ebb and flow of the action sweep over the plains, I would like you to join my house carls. You have experience, I think?"
"Yes, Earl Edric, but I also have experience in horse grazing and trading." Godfrew gratefully accepted the stool a young warrior offered him.
"No doubt. At the right time, that is both an honourable and profitable trade." The eyes had locked into Godfrew's and never left them. "At the right time. At this time, I do not need lease holders, nor do I need to buy horses when I am in a position to relieve others of them for nothing." The voice still had an edge of humour to it. "At the moment, I need men: men who know how to bear arms, men with battle experience, men who are not afraid." A pause invited Godfrew to reply.
"And you believe I fill the part, Earl Edric." Godfrew kept his stiff knee out straight.
"From what I have heard, I do. Just what particular role you will fill, I am not sure. Time will tell. You will " Edric's eyes opened " and please note I said 'you will' return to Lydbury with some of my men tomorrow. I, alas," the Earl turned to his ladies who nodded back to him in acknowledgment, "must continue the hunt." He returned to look at Godfrew again. "The prey is elusive, but my scouts are out seeking it at this very moment. Indeed, I am led to understand that they will bring the prey to bay at first light tomorrow." Again, he looked at his ladies. "Now won't that be good!"
"Such fun, my Lord." Goda replied for them.
"Indeed. Splendid fun. Now, I see drinks have arrived. Well done, good people of Martinsfield. Wulf, go with Torquil and make arrangements to leave here. Your wife and others from the family are most welcome to join us at the manor should you wish." Edric took the proffered pewter pot of boiling water and placed it on the ground in front of him. Goda knelt and poured some clarified honey into it, then added a measured amount of dried herbs. Before she had a chance to offer it to the Earl, he got up and moved quickly to grab hold of the youngster who had fetched Godfrew. The youth was bringing foaming pots of full strength ale to the other warriors. From his walk, he had been sampling some of it already. "You drunken little shit-faced ferret." Edric's voice was filled with anger. "There is work to be done and you are pissed out of your tiny brain already." He cuffed the youth's head with the back of his hand, the jolt of which sent the youngster sprawling. He lay there in the ale-soaked dirt, afraid to get up. Earl Edric put his foot on the young warrior's neck. When he spoke, his voice trembled with rage. "Once more, boy, and I will turn you into a bloody eagle. Do you know what that is, boy? Ask the older warriors, the ones who fought the Norwegians with me. It is a very unpleasant Norwegian practice. They cut your ribs up the front and then rip them back to expose your lungs and heart. I have seen it done and noted it. I am just waiting for the chance to try it out myself." He increased the pressure of his foot, causing the youth to gag. "You want to get pissed? Wait until the hunting is done, then you can get as legless as you like. The rest of you," he faced his men "add water to the ale these good folk have provided; half and half. Make it last." He returned to his stool and settled himself, taking the drink proffered by Goda. Godfrew was getting up. Edric smiled at him and spoke in his usual relaxed voice. "The youth of today! What are they coming to?"
"Indeed, Earl Edric." Godfrew inclined his head and hobbled off to join Torquil, who waited for him.
"It was as well you agreed to comply with the master, young Wulf." Torquil walked slowly alongside Godfrew as he sought out Elfgifu and her young cousins. "He hates to be thwarted. It make him angry. He hates to be angry, because it makes him vicious." They neared the women who sat by the corpses of the dead folk, waving away the persistent flies, waiting for Edric's chaplain to finish his mutter over the bodies before they could be buried. " I suspect, though, he sometimes likes to be vicious." Torquil's laugh was not a pleasant one.
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