"Got a sword then, have you, boy?" the reeve tapped his own short sword hanging in a tatty scabbard at his side.
"No, but I do have this" Godfrew put his hand around his back and pulled out his saxe, the sun glinting on its one sharp edge.
"Now that is a big knife, if I say so myself. Ever had to use it other than to kill game?" The reeve's question seemed genuine.
"Isn't all killing a game?" Godfrew put the weapon away and settled the off-white cloak over his back again, hiding the saxe.
"Depends on how you look on life. Me now, I've seen too much of it, killing that is and life too, I suppose. Nasty old business at times-life." Without Llew's threatening menace, the reeve seemed more relaxed-even friendly. Godfrew, however, did not relax. Llew had told him something of the man's background-how he had been the village reeve as long as anyone could remember, reeve to the Welsh, then to the Saxons, then to the Welsh again and yet once more to the Saxons. Each time the land ownership changed, Evan the Reeve remained in charge of the village. Loyalty meant nothing and survival everything. Evan had seen herds taken, people taken, crops taken or burnt. He had seen folk killed, yet always, he remained. Evan and the village were always there-always waiting for the next tenants to arrive, always waiting for the survivors to drift back, always waiting for the newcomers to take up and pay their rent for the empty cottages. Evan always was there to take his cut. He seemed to always know who was going to raid next and when. Evan always knew when to leave the village and when it was safe to return.
Evan the Reeve was a man not to be trusted.
The ponies jogged across the plain and started up the gentle hills on the other side of the River Arrow. Grassland gave way first to scrub, then to woodland. The shade of the trees provided a relief from the heat of the day. Godfrew had first rolled his cloak up and slung it across the front of his saddle, then had done the same with his over shirt. Now, with the cool of the forest, he put his shirt back on again. The plain had been dotted with small hamlets, many burnt and deserted, evidence of the cross-border raiding that had only stopped when King Harold, still only the Earl of East Anglia, had struck the Welsh a blow from which they had only recently started to recover. Harold had brought about the death of Prince Griffith, shattering the Welsh princedom back into its usual squabbling fragments. Now, Harold himself was dead and no one knew what that meant to the borderlands. As Godfrew and Evan had ridden by, field workers had grasped their implements and held them as weapons. In those hamlets still occupied, women had gathered children as a hen would its chicks. Everywhere, there was fear. As they progressed into the upland, the devastation became even more evident. What had been clearings were now young woods. What had been hamlets were now scrub land. Deer had replaced cattle and wild boar had supplanted the domestic swine.
Cresting a rise, the horsemen stopped. Through a gap in the oak trees, they could see a holding in a cleared valley below. A small area was in crop, but most of the land was in grazing. Godfrew noted the fact that the cattle herders were mounted and appeared to be lightly armed. The holding itself was surrounded by a moat and a fence of sharpened stakes. The buildings inside the defenses were quite substantial. A large, long house sat in the centre, smoke curling lazily from a hole in the thatch. The long house appeared to have carved eaves, though it was difficult to see clearly at that distance. Godfrew held a hand in front of his good eye and peered through his fingers, using a gap to sharpen his focus. Even so, he could not make out if they were carvings or not.
Evan leaned across and pointed with his favourite finger. "Lydbury North. Earl Edric's manor. He also had Lydbury South, but Griffith the Magnificent burnt it to the ground. Powerful man is our Lord Edric. Holds land in both this shire and in Shropshire." Evan moved his pony closer to Godfrew: "I doubt we will see his Lordship, but if we do, don't upset him."
The dark pony sidled, uncomfortable at the closeness of Evan's mount. Godfrew settled her by stroking her neck. "My wife's family refer to him as Edric the Wild."
"Wild all right! Wild as in 'savage'!" Evan reflectively picked his nose. After examining the contents of his finger nail, he continued. "Scourge of the Cymry enemy of the Normans prickly neighbour of the other Saxons Edric the Wild downright bloody nasty, if you ask me. Not," he turned to face Godfrew, "that I would ever dare tell him to his face. Oh, he would laugh all right think it very funny but he would also carry on laughing as his pack of wolves flayed the skin off of my poor old body. Oh, yes, Edric the Wild, or 'Lord' as I calls him, whenever I have the misfortune to meet him." He went back to his fingernail. "And don't think telling him about our conversation will gain you credit either, boy. After he'd seen to me, he'd do you too, just to show he doesn't like tale bearers. I've seen it done. Vicious Saxon bastard." Evan gave his nag a nudge and they continued on the path down the slope toward the holding.
The trees did not give way gently to scrub and then grass, but stopped suddenly just below the ridge. There, the tree line zigzagged to the crest of the ridge and back again in a pattern designed to prevent either horsemen or footmen from forming up in large numbers without being seen by those in the valley below. As the two riders came into the open, a cattle herder saw them and called to his companion, who rode at speed toward the palisade. Soon there was a body of twenty or so riders jogging toward the visitors. The band was lightly armoured and carried throwing spears.
As they came within casting distance, they halted. The lead rider came forward at a slow walk until he was about five horse lengths away. "Evan, you thieving old wog, I thought it was you. I could smell down wind." The man wore a helmet with a scared nasal guard and dented crown. He had a deep scar across his cheek and the usual broken nose. He smiled to reveal a missing front tooth and his tongue played with the gap. "Got a new friend, eh? I thought it was young wenches you fancied, not young boys!" The war-band leader gave Godfrew the once over and took in the silver streaked hair. "Perhaps not so young." He turned his attention back to Evan. "Well, toe-rag, what is it now?"
"I have brought this young man to see the manor reeve about leasing some grazing land outside the hamlet of Martinsfield." Godfrew was again scrutinised. "He is related by marriage to some of the folk there: Dai ap Llewelyn, who married Egath, Sif's daughter." The emphasis Evan placed on the sentence showed how important it was to establish Godfrew's credibility.
The war-band leader shifted in the saddle, then having made a mental decision, relaxed and cradled his spear. "Seeing as it is money for our master you are talking about, we had better get you going. Dagobert is sitting at the hearth today, so you are fortunate." He moved his horse to one side to let the others past.
As Godfrew and Evan rode on, the other riders joined them at a distance. The two were surrounded, but the riders stayed two sword's lengths away. As they jogged down the increasingly gentle slope toward the holding, Evan leaned toward Godfrew and whispered out of the side of his mouth: "That bastard Torquil knew I was coming today. He loves to put on a show, just to remind me who is in charge." Godfrew nodded his head in acknowledgment, but kept looking forward to avoid betraying the conversation. Torquil did not look like the sort of man who would appreciate being whispered about.
As they crossed the moat and came within the palisade, Godfrew saw that the eave boards of the long house were not carved at all. Rather, the decoration was made up of dried heads on angled stakes. Some were very old with withered, leather skin and wisps of straggled hair. Some were so fresh that the skin was puffed up and maggots wriggled in the cut flesh where the birds had pecked away the skin and eaten their fill. The eave boards themselves were stained black and white from dried blood and bird's droppings, both forming coloured stalactites that hung from the bottom edge. The doors to the long house were solid oak reinforced with iron straps. In front of them stood two men wearing ring mail coats and armed with spears and shields. The spears were of the heavy boar-hunting type with heavy and unornamented stop bars.
As the riders approached, boys ran out from nowhere to catch the horse's bridles. As soon as the riders had dismounted, the boys led the mounts away. When the last animal was around the side of the long house, there were whoops of joy and the jingle of bits and harness hinted that horses and ponies would be ridden to the paddock rather than walked. Godfrew caught one of the younger members in the escort grinning, obviously recalling his own stolen rides not so long ago.
Torquil led the way into the hall as Evan and Godfrew followed. Behind them came six of the escort. The others headed to the wall of the long house and squatted facing the sun. At the oak door, Evan handed his sword to one of the armed guards. Godfrew watched, then followed suit with his saxe. Inside, the hall was surprisingly light. Godfrew could easily see to the end where, on a raised dais, a man sat behind a long table counting coins into piles and marking the totals on a tally stick. Behind the man stood a striking woman, tall with smooth features and a full body. Her curly golden hair showed beneath a severe white cap. As they approached, Evan removed his broad-rimmed hat and lowered his head. At the foot of the dais, he knelt in the strewn herbs and straw that covered the earthen floor. Godfrew noticed Evan was nervously playing with the rim of his hat, thumbing the edge and moving it around in his hand.
"My Lady Gondul." When he had finished addressing her, Evan raised his eyes to the lady, then lowered them quickly when she made eye contact. The lady then looked at Godfrew imperiously, so he also knelt.
"Evan of Martinsfield. I trust that this time you have brought the correct rents with you?" the lady's voice was high and ringing, like a priest's silver mass bell.
"My Lady. But ..." Evan's voice was low and almost inaudible.
"No buts, Evan," the voice was even and emotionless.
"The plague, my Lady "
"Is your problem, not mine. There is a set rent for Martinsfield. You pay the set rent. Getting the rent is your problem, not mine."
"But my Lady "
"So, Evan, you would that I told Earl Edric?" there was still no emotion in the voice.
"No my Lady. But ..."
"It is settled then." The lady gently ran her finger around the neck of the man seated at the table in front of her. "Evan wants to pay his rent, Dagobert. Just make sure it all goes in the manor's coffers this time." The voice now had a playful, almost seductive edge to it.
"My Lady." Dagobert, the manor reeve, slowly turned his head and looked into Lady Gondul's light blue eyes. As he did so, he widened his own eyes playfully. "What else would I do?"
Gondul gently laughed and the sound was again that of a tinkling bell. She looked down at Evan. "And who is this with you, pray?" the voice was again emotionless.
"A relation of some Martinsfield folk who wishes to lease grazing. I have brought him with me to discuss terms with Dagobert the Reeve." Yet again, Evan looked up till he met Gondul's gaze, then quickly caste his eyes down to the floor, all the time playing with his hat.
"It is about time you found other tenants." The Lady Gondul ran a speculative eye over Godfrew. "You also seem to have found one of our folk, from his colouring." Gondul ran a finger around the back of Dagobert's neck. When she spoke again, her voice had acquired a hard edge. "I have been concerned recently with those that you have brought into Martinsfield. There are too many of your relation, Evan. I would hate to think that Earl Edric could not rely on the loyalty of Martinsfield, should the Welsh come raiding again!" Evan performed another bob of the eye and his hat fondling became more physical, the rim of the hat getting all scrunched up. "You wouldn't want another heart-to-heart talk with Earl Edric now, would you?" Again she played with Dagobert's neck, only this time the lady finished at the manor reeve's ear. Catching the lob between the nails of her index finger and thumb she squeezed until blood showed. Dagobert closed his eyes in seeming ecstasy, his mouth slightly open, his breath coming in short pants. When she spoke again, her voice had resumed its original emotionless tone. "You did seem to be a trifle distressed the last time he summoned you for a personal interview. It was following that 'incident' last Michaelmas, wasn't it?"
"My Lady." The rim of Evan's hat tore and he dropped the object on the floor.
"Yes. You were even more distressed after the interview if I remember rightly." The lady put her finger and thumb to her mouth and licked off the small amount of blood that had started to congeal on the nails. When she had finished, she held her hand at a distance to examine it, turning it first this way, then that. Satisfied with the cleanliness and undoubted beauty of her nails, she turned her attention back to Evan. "Your fingernails grew again, I trust?"
"My lady." Evan swallowed audibly.
"Loosing them must have made it difficult to count the coins you had stolen from the Earl Edric."
"But my Lady ..."
"But? Evan, but? No buts." Gondul went back to stroking Dagobert's neck. "I wonder," the voice now sounded speculative, "I wonder how well a man can walk after his toenails have been removed?" The question must have been for Dagobert for she took a handful of his thick chestnut hair and pulled his head back to compel him to look at her. "Does it cause much of a problem?" She twisted the manor reeve's hair back and forth so that he seemed to shake his head in disagreement. "No? Does one then have to cut his little pinkies off at the joint to impress on a man one's displeasure, then?" this time she compelled the manor reeve to nod his assent. "But one shouldn't cripple him if he is to continue work, should one." Again there was the forced disagreement. "But do we want him to continue him working for us?" Dagobert smiled and the lady tweaked his nose with her free hand. "Naughty Dagobert. Only the Earl Edric can decide a matter such as this." Gondul let go of his hair and the man's head fell back onto the slight rise of her belly, while she blew on his forehead, causing his hair to dance. "Enough." She moved away, leaving Dagobert to flounder for balance. "See to our beloved and trusted reeve of Martinsfield, Master Dagobert." With a toss of her head the lady turned and disappeared behind the curtain at the rear of the dais. When he had regained his posture Dagobert still had a silly smile on his face, but when he spoke to Evan it was the voice of a serpent.
"You have been over grazing the pastures, you wog ox. Remember, a hand that takes what does not belong to it is a hand that does nothing. How, my crooked friend, will you ever pick your nose again when your hand is sitting in your pocket-doing nothing, because it has been cut off?" Evan did another eye bob. "And this is another poor sheep you had hoped to fleece?" The manor reeve turned his gaze to Godfrew.
"A good man, related to folk already at Martinsfield. I did not try and take money from him, Master Dagobert. I brought him straight here so that he could deal direct with you." Evan gave a quick eye bob, then retrieved his torn hat.
"So, you have learnt that much." Dagobert addressed Godfrew this time. "There was a small misunderstanding between us over the division of responsibilities. Nothing to do with my Lady's reference to Michaelmas. That was an error of judgment that called Evan's loyalty into question and was dealt with by Earl Edric in person. No, the misunderstanding I am referring to was much smaller, between Evan and myself. It was a matter easily resolved, as indeed are all things between old friends." The unblinking eyes remained on Godfrew. "Right, Evan?"
"Right. Master Reeve." Evan worried at the torn hat.
"Wulf, Master Reeve. His family call him Wulf." With Dagobert's attention on Godfrew, Evan risked a proper look at the manor reeve.
"Now, Wulf. You want to lease grazing?" Still his eyes did not blink. "The cost is one hundred shillings a year: cash, no goods in lieu."
Godfrew returned the stare as best he could. "For land that is only yours sometimes, one hundred shillings is a lot of money."
"Is it now?" Dagobert snapped his fingers and a boy came forward with a drinking horn of foaming ale. The reeve downed it in one gulp. A rim of foam clung to the beard around his mouth. "Wulf, let me remind you that few people live in the Marchlands because they like it. Either they are born here and, for some reason, can't get away, or they like fighting and haven't been killed yet. Or perhaps they want to hide from someone powerful for a while. You are not local, so that takes out the first reason. If you had enjoyed fighting you would have been after joining the war band instead of grazing, so that takes out the second reason. Which only leaves the third reason-so look upon the leasing fee as containing an element of protection money. When you look at it that way, one hundred shillings a year is not much. Remember, stock here is very cheap, even free sometimes. You have cash?"
"I can get it."
"I'm sure you can. Coins preferably. If you only have broken jewellery, try and melt it down. We don't see much of the King's Justice around here, but someone might recognise it and cause a problem. A deal?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"None." Dagobert gave another silly smile. "Except to lease the land with your money or go back to Martinsfield and wait for us to come and steal it from you." The village reeve spat on his hand and held it out to Godfrew. Godfrew got up off of his knees and went up to shake the man's hand.
"A deal. You will collect the money when?"
"I am a reasonable person, despite what some would say." He glanced at Evan, who quickly took to looking at the floor again. "In view of the problems of continual ownership, I will collect the rent every quarter. The first payment will be when I do my rounds later in the month. I am a trusting man, just have things ready for me. Don't, however, disappoint me. I do not like being disappointed, do I Evan!"
"No, Master Reeve."
"Now leave us, Wulf. Evan and I have other things to discuss."
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