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After leaving the town, they rode to the north and the low-lying wooded hills. Near noon, the road crossed with another. Around the crossroads was a larger party of well-dressed men sprawled on the grass verges, eating and drinking. Closing ranks, Godfrew and his party tightened their reins, ready to run. They were almost past the picnickers when a short, well-dressed balding man gave instructions to a youth who then ran across.

As he came up to Godfrew, the youth grabbed his horse's bridle and pulled it to a stop. Godfrew nervously fingered the hilt of his saxe. "My master would know who you are." Despite being almost as tall as Godfrew, the boy's voice had not yet broken. He sounded like a girl.

When he replied, Godfrew's hoarse voice grated. "I am an under-reeve for Ralf, Earl of East Anglia. I am to conduct a survey for him of his new lands in this county of Suffolk."

"Greetings, Master Reeve." The high pitch of the boy's voice unsettled Godfrew's rouncy. "Perhaps you would meet with my master and tell him of your business?"

Godfrew looked slowly about. The other party consisted of about twenty. Although they were only equipped for hawking, they looked too formidable to upset or run away from. "Your master. May I ask who he is?" The road dust made Godfrew sound even more gravel-voiced than usual.

"William Mallet," the youth squeaked. "I trust you have heard of him?"

"He lost York to Earl Waltheof, I believe." Godfrew watched the boy's face. The boy squirmed. "Don't mention it, Master Reeve. My master lost many friends in that escapade." He looked across to where the Mallet lay sprawled on his side watching them. "My master was a councillor to King Edward the Confessor."

"And to William the Bastard."

The youth went red. "Come, Master Reeve. Come and greet my master."

Godfrew dismounted with difficulty and the others followed suit. The tall boy was soon joined by some others who ran up to hold the horses. Godfrew looked at his men. Puta preened himself, spitting on his hands and smoothing his hair down. Tosti stood stiff legged and stared at the Normans. Clunn fingered the torn remains of ears, his lips curled over his yellow teeth. All were dressed in dusty, patched clothing and looked quite dishevelled. "Steady lads," Godfrew muttered. "Steady. We are on legal business. We are in the right. Steady."

As they came near William Mallet and his inner group, they caught parts of the conversation. They were surprised to find it a mix of both English and Norman French, sometimes both tongues being used in one sentence. As they stood before the great man, he signalled his companions to cease their banter.

"Greetings. May I ask who you are and where you are going?" Mallet's English was perfect and unaccented.

"My Lord, I am Geri Wendlewulf, an under-reeve to Earl Ralf of East Anglia. I am undertaking a survey of his new holdings in the county of Suffolk. We are travelling to his holding of Combs. These are my men." Godfrew eased his weight onto his good leg and stood askew.

William studied Godfrew and the others. "A drink, Master Geri? I insist." He turned and beckoned the squeaky-voiced boy over. "Walter, get some ale for our guests." Mallet then rolled back to face Godfrew's party. "I am sorry to have detained you, but these are troubled times. Please accept refreshment as recompense."

Godfrew looked at his men to see if they liked the idea. Puta was busy eyeing the muscular body of the recumbent man at Mallet's side, but both Tosti and Clunn were rubbing their hands together and licking their dirt-encrusted lips. "Thank you, my Lord. Your generous reputation is well founded." The boy waved them over to a shady oak tree where other youths were getting food and drink ready for them. Shock sat expectantly at the heel of Walter, his tail wagging and tongue drooling.

As they walked away, William Mallet smiled at his nearest companion."My, my, Frank. Young Ralf must be getting desperate-or they are liars."

"Then why let them go, my Lord?" Despite speaking French, Frank-like his master-wore his hair long and bore dangling moustaches in the English fashion.

"The story is too fabulous to be false." William gave a chuckle, "I doubt young Ralf knows just what he has taken on with that crew ... Geri ... the wolf-skin cloak ... the others ... all ruffians to a man. Wendlewulf! Wolfshead, more like." He picked up his cup of wine and carefully picked out a drowning ant with his well-manicured index finger. "Frank?"

"My Lord."

"Just make sure that our boys check the stock if those wolves pass by any Mallet holdings."

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