Godfrew stood in the shadows directing and controlling the supplies of honey-ale and wine, ensuring that the best went to the top table and the sober. The ale and wines of lower quality went to those whose pallets were past appreciating fine quality. The light from the hall dimmed for a moment. Godfrew glanced over to see two men walking down the passage, unaware of his presence. The lead man was solid and bear-like in build. The other was tall and thin, walking with the help of a staff. He waited until they had passed and he was sure of their identity before he stood out in the passageway and called quietly after them: "My Lord Waltheof."
The thin man, despite his obvious physical infirmities, pushed Earl Waltheof against the wall and stood protectively in front of him, his staff grasped and held like a quarter-staff, ready to strike.
"Steady, Red. I think I recognise that voice and that stance." Waltheof moved alongside the ancient warrior and peered at the darkened figure before him. "Step closer to the light here." The figure moved. "Ah, so it is you, young thane. Ralf mentioned that he had a man with an elf smitten eye working for him. I guessed it was you."
"I knew it was you. Ralf mentioned you when Waltheof spoke to him about the quality of the ale. He said that you had got it. An eye like that? I knew it must be you, even if every time someone talks about you they give you a different name," added Red.
"My Lord. I wish to have a word with you about what is happening here."
"The wedding? Don't worry. The ale is excellent." The Earl tapped old Red on the shoulder, "Relax, Red." Red changed back from the alert warrior to an old man and leaned hard on his staff. "Now," Waltheof said to Godfrew, "a word with you, young Gareth, my forester."
"Gareth ... yes, a very helpful young man. Now my Lord ..."
"What have you done with him ... Gareth."
"Done my Lord?" Vague memories of the evil deeds of the wolf pack on the return to its lair at Lydbury flicked through Godfrew's mind. "He ... we ... did no more than we had to do, my Lord Waltheof."
"Not with Gareth ... to Gareth." The three men moved to one side to let pages pass by. They carried fully-feathered boiled swans stuffed with bread and chestnuts, the trays garnished with aromatic lovell, so that the swans gave the illusion of swimming through water weeds. The Earl waited until they had entered the hall before continuing to question Godfrew: "Come now, young thane ... Gareth."
"Gareth left us in the foot hills of the Pennines. We struck south and he headed for Chester. Why, my Lord?" Godfrew looked around, uncomfortable that the conversation was not yet over, unwilling to be seen talking with Earl Waltheof.
"He never got there. At least his mother never saw him ... and he never came back to me." Waltheof gave a grim smile. "I would hate to think that his loss was on your account."
"Without Gareth, we would never had made it home. I would never have let any harm come to him. Now, my Lord, I must ..."
"Very fond of young Gareth, weren't you, Waltheof?" Red shuffled into the light, the scar around his head that he had collected at the Stamford Bridge fight was now puckered and white. There were small lumps in the scar tissue where fragments of bone were still working their way to the surface.
"My Lord, please ..."
"How are you enjoying your settled life with Ralf, young thane. Much quieter than your time with old Edric the Wild, eh?"
"It has had its moments, Lord Waltheof, but this is my last job for the Earl. My uncle at Battersea has been struck by the palsy, leaving him unable to use his right side ...and his wife is dying, so I asked to be released from service. Earl Ralf has kindly agreed. But please, my Lord ..."
"Battersea? Hardly the hub of the kingdom! What are you going to do with yourself there?"
"Brew ale, my Lord, but ...."
"And sampling it, too, no doubt!"
Old Red smacked his lips. "A good drop of stuff young Ralf got in for the bride-ale. From your uncle's?"
"Yes, he is renowned for it." Godfrew turned back to Waltheof. " My Lord ..."
"Excellent ale! Let me know when you get yourself set up. I'll have some of that ale for myself."
"My Lord." Godfrew's voice became strident, "Please, my Lord. I have something important to say to you."
Waltheof laughed. "Sorry, young thane. Yes, what is it."
Godfrew looked around and came close to the Earl. "My Lord, there are things that are being talked about here. Things that perhaps should be kept quiet?"
"No!" The Earl turned to his foster father, "Red? Have you heard anything?"
The old warrior shrugged his shoulders. "No."
"There will be, my Lord." Godfrew waited for the returning pages to go past and enter the kitchen before speaking again. "Earl Ralf's new wife."
"Lovely bit of stuff," commented Red, poking his tongue through the gap where his front teeth should have been. "Wouldn't mind a bit of it myself. Mind of her own though, I shouldn't wonder. Spice on the meat, that!" He cackled with pleasure at the thought.
"Surprisingly enough, Ralf seems enamoured of her," Waltheof commented to Red. "I thought that it was the usual family alliance thing, but he seems to be under her spell."
"I wouldn't mind being under her, Waltheof." Again Red cackled.
"My Lord," Godfrew interrupted. "It may be that the king does not approve of the union."
"I cannot possibly comment, my Lord, but it may be of great importance to you to clarify the matter with Earl Ralf." Godfrew wrung his hands "There are other things afoot, my Lord." He dared to touch the earl's cuff. "Please, be careful. A web is being spun and it would be risky to get caught in it."
"Ralf is the spider?"
"His wife's brother fits the role better, my Lord. I fear for Earl Ralf in the matter. I think he is already ensnared, tempted by the Earl Roger's using his sister as the bait."
"How do you know these things, young thane?" Waltheof asked.
Red stuck his face next to Waltheof's ear and whispered into it. "Your young thane was Edric's wandering wolf ... and, from what I understand, he may have fulfilled the same task for young Ralf, too."
"Ah, yes, Red is right. You have spent many years gathering information, both for your masters and for yourself. Just because you are working in Ralf's household doesn't mean that you have got out of the habit. So," Waltheof gave Godfrew a long quizzical look, "why are you telling me all this?"
"I owe you my life, Earl Waltheof of Northampton. In return, I would try and save yours."
"So the plot-if indeed there is a plot-is not of your liking?"
"It is not right ... not properly prepared? Timing wrong? Out of balance? Not thought through? I don't know, my Lord. I just don't like the feel of it."
"It doesn't feel right?" Waltheof's voice was edged with humour.
Again, the three men had to make way for pages to pass through, laded with dishes-this time cut rounds of cheeses of all types. The lead dish included a large white cheese covered with yellow slime as the centre piece. Hard, crumbling cheese streaked with blue sat around it in a decorative pattern.
"My Lord, it doesn't smell right."
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