A Chronicle of Olde England
By Edward M. Turner
Ribaldry tends to disguise a harsh existence. In 1056 England, there are no humane set of laws, no benign constitution, no protection for the masses (or the mighty) except might makes right and the practiced sleight of hand. The narration is Rabelaisian with overtones, always, of the darkness of life when the drinking ends, the money runs out and payment is due.
An Eppie Winning Novel.
ISBN 1-59431-044-0 Historical/Action-Adventure
Cover Art by Maggie Dix
Also available in RTF and HTML formats.
By Edward M. Turner
Lloyd knew eyes followed his every move. He tried to be nonchalant as he fingered his goatee in contemplation. The fire's embers threw off a glow only within a few feet, its heat illusionary. But the hare he cooked on a makeshift spit was real and its pungent aroma enough to attract the company of strangers. Lloyd wanted company. He turned the spit ever so slowly, his lanky frame relaxed, yet ready for action at a moment's notice.
"There's enough for a friend if he's hungry." He looked to where he thought he'd heard a stomach growl. There was movement, as if something stiffened. Silence stretched as Lloyd's charity was considered. Then the bushes parted and a huge form approached the fire.
Now Lloyd had seen a good number of men in his twenty-five years, all ages and sizes. This man looked impressive. The figure stood a few inches short of seven feet, shoulders the breadth of a boulder, legs big as tree trunks and arms... well, arms to match.
In a way, he seemed familiar to Lloyd. The man walked to the fire and stared at the roasting food. His belly groaned softly, but he remained mute.
Lloyd broke off a hindquarter of the cooked hare and held it up. The man took the meat in slow motion as if dazed, put it in his mouth, chewed thoughtfully, and stared at the fire. Lloyd beckoned him to sit. The man sat heavily and sighed, the meat bone already bare in his fingers.
The silence in Sherwood Forest remained unbroken. Spring in this year of 1056 had brought an unseasonable warmth after the winter's north wind had changed to one that gusted from the south. The land of England woke early but the plans of men had changed, some for the good, while others carried an evil that would affect events sooner than expected. The desperate men of Sherwood Forest thought the warm wind carried a promise of better things. At least the weather wouldn't be against them.
"Traveled far?" Lloyd asked as he handed over another piece of hare.
The big man looked at the meat and something thawed. Tears fell down his cheeks as he took the food. He tried to hold back his emotions but touched at this kindness from a stranger a sob escaped. He gave in and broke down completely, head in hands.
Lloyd turned away to give the big man a sense of private space. It didn't help. He finally moved closer to the fellow and roughly patted his shoulder and murmured, "It's all right, it's all right."
Lloyd surprised himself. He considered himself to be a toughened--even calloused--man. When the giant entered the circle of his campfire, a plot to pull some advantage from this stranger had formed in his mind. Yet the fellow seemed so harmless and, by the looks of his ragged tunic and well worn leggings, penniless as well.
When the giant recovered his composure Lloyd resumed his seat and pretended the outburst never happened. They both again fell silent. Lloyd reached in a gunnysack and pulled out a loaf of white bread. He set it in the hot ashes to warm. He glanced at his guest to see his reaction to the kind of bread only the well-to-do ever saw.
He brought out a skin bottle and sloshed the contents. "Thirsty? I don't know your name. I'm Lloyd."
The big man's face lit up. "I'm Herbert. They call me John Ox 'cause I can lift like an ox. You can call me John. Is that mead?"
Lloyd hid a smile. He could use this gentle giant. "Why don't I call you Herbert? I like that name. This is ale, good ale. I scrounged it myself."
Herbert reached for the skin, his eyes twinkling with life. "Thank you. I'll be Herbert to you. I like you, Lloyd." He put the skin's spout in his mouth and squeezed out a fair amount of ale. Done, he wiped the end and gave it back.
"Traveled far, Herbert?" He poked the loaf with a stick and lifted it from the hot ashes. He dropped it in front of him and sliced off a couple of pieces. He got some lard from the sack, spread it on the bread and passed one to Herbert.
A pained expression crossed Herbert's face. "I killed a man."
"Oh? Where?" Lloyd noted the width of his shoulders.
"Back in Graft. He won't hurt Mama no more."
"Well, Herbert. I've done stuff, bad stuff in my.... former life. It ain't nice but sometimes its gotta be done." Lloyd looked searchingly at Herbert. "You know, I'm from Graft."
Herbert ran a muscular arm across his mouth. "I don't know you. A fire burned his place, a big place. Him in it. I put him in the fireplace, up the chimney. His men tried to stop me. I was mad. He hurt Mama."
Lloyd sat stunned. He realized he knew of Herbert from way back, had seen him around Graft. Lloyd even knew Herbert's father. "I won't tell no one. I know who you mean, he's Blake. Lord Blake. Some people think it's good he's dead. He was a hard man, but he should've been careful. I heard about your Mama. I weren't there though, I've been away." Lloyd spoke in a monotone as he recited the facts.
The truth was, Lloyd used to work for Lord Blake. He was Blake's steward. He'd returned from a trip to London for the Lord and found his livelihood a mixture of charred timbers and bones. Now he remembered Herbert. His story was the talk of the town.
Herbert grew up on the outskirts of Graft, a thriving town of more than two hundred souls. A farming community, it marketed vegetables like beets and turnips to bigger towns, along with barley and oats for sale to the inns in Holbeach on the east coast and further north. Graft was famous as far south as London because it boasted The Rogues Tavern, an inn and stable run by the infamous Harry Baley of ill repute.
This tavernkeeper had his finger on the pulse of the entire north, excluding the city of Holbeach. His intrigues stretched as far north as York and west to Nottingham. Anything was for sale, stolen goods fenced, information paid for, and the ale... made on the premises and guaranteed to satisfy even the thirst of Old Lucifer himself.
Besides Harry Baley, there was Merchant Sawyer. He shipped merchandise from his base store in Graft to London and up to York and back, and used the old Roman road that ran through Sherwood Forest. England was threaded by a few such roads, most of them faint tracks grown over by forests but some kept in good repair for general use. His business, and the tavernkeeper's, brought a measure of prosperity to Graft.
Smaller tradesmen also made a living in Graft. Carpenters, a few barber-surgeons (in cut throat competition), two blacksmiths working mainly out of Baley's stables, women who worked for Merchant Sawyer in his weaving business and operated the hand looms, women who cleaned homes instead of farming, women who worked for Baley and served in his tavern (and served in his rooms for travelers).
Herbert thrived in Graft. The bigger world of England seemed too remote and other countries non-existent. His home was a thatched cottage left to him by a drunken father. Ralf drowned in a summer flood while fishing in a rainstorm. The water rose as he lay passed out, the fish not biting.
Herbert was freed from his father's insistence that Herbert's youth be spent laboring to insure a steady supply of alcoholic drink. No one mourned Ralf's passing, which included Herbert's mother, Marion. She was a gentle, long suffering woman blessed with a strong and loyal son but cursed with a morally weak husband. After her husband's death she gave Herbert elbow-room. She knew he'd support her and decided he had to find his own way.
Herbert did. He found honest labor doing farm work for an old hermit living in an abandoned stone church about two leagues beyond the Welham River, north of Graft. The hermit raised chickens, a few geese, some goats and bees. The bees produced honey, and when fermented produced mead, a sugary liquor Herbert grew quite fond of. He worked with a will, even when the old hermit preached (he liked mead also) his own brand of religion that combined a mish-mash of paganism with the worship of bee-trees, plus a few Christian myths. The hermit's information had large gaps and outright lies sprinkled throughout, yet Herbert liked his undemanding ways.
Another thing the hermit did (Herbert didn't know his name, aside from Old Man), was to entertain his young worker with tales of a mysterious 'Miracle Doctor'. Old Man would relate the tragedy of a family in need of succor, sometimes money woes or sudden sicknesses and in rare instances a reluctant maiden in want of a love potion. The Miracle Doctor, a Christ-like figure (also with long white hair and beard like the hermit), intervened when the tale reached its roughest point. Herbert always listened intently and applauded whenever the story ended happily. He was never disappointed.
At night Herbert returned to his beloved mother. He'd drag home wood for the fire on a sledge. For supper they'd have maybe a couple of hares caught in snares he set each morning and supplemented by greens from the little garden plot she tended behind the cottage. On special occasions a plump goose graced their evening meal, donated by a grateful hermit in recognition of Herbert's faithful labor. The size and strength of Herbert made the hermit the envy of all the farmers in the area. He was known in the area, with respect, as John Ox. He accepted the name.
Things change, however. One day in early spring, when the south wind blew weeks sooner than expected, a local thane decided to pay Herbert's mother a visit on business. His name was Lord Blake.
He had a timbered mansion on the road before her cottage, a large single-story affair that held many rooms and covered nearly a quarter hide of land (a hide was about four acres). Stone walls and battlements were not common among the lesser Saxon nobility. A palisade of sharpened wooden stakes surrounded Blake's entire main building which acted as a deterrent to the casual burglar. His holdings included twenty-five hides of land, cattle and sheep, fields of wheat, barley, oats, wood for charcoal and many retainers who served his interests. Lord Blake was also owed debts by some of the townsfolk, a good number of whom worked his fields as indentured servants. He never forgot a favor given or a debt secured.
Herbert's father had asked a favor of Blake his last day on earth--money for a cask of wine. The urge of drink made Ralf, a carpenter when sober, seek labor when Herbert just could not earn enough money. Ralf would drop in to see the Lord, and Blake would have him fix a door or window, build a swine trough and sometimes carve walking sticks; the kind Blake used as stupid sticks for his servants.
That fateful day Ralf had asked outright for money from Blake. The lord knew Marion, and gave the man enough silver pennies to buy the best wine Harry Baley had. Ralf didn't quite finish the wine that day of the storm. Blake, however, remembered the debt and wanted to collect on it... his way.
The day looked to be a good one. Clouds had cleared before dawn and a warm wind had dried the dew in the hayfields. Herbert got up early and ate a huge breakfast of pease porridge and rye bread. He wanted to get on the road so as to meet the hermit. Old man had promised to lend Herbert his flea-bitten donkey.
Herbert needed to haul some logs to town for Harry Baley. He had skill with wood and had bargained with Baley to build new front doors for the tavern. Recently, a brawl with out-of-towners had destroyed the doors after one had claimed he was robbed by a barmaid. This was a frequent occurrence, given the strength of Baley's brew (and the nimble fingers of the girls).
Marion went back to bed after her son left. She hadn't slept well because of bad dreams. Maybe the wind to the south had something to do with it. The breeze from a new direction created different creaks in her home at night. A nap would fix things.
She could feel herself drifting off when there came a knock on the door. Marion put on a flimsy shift to hide her nakedness and wondered who on earth it could be. When she opened the door she saw Lord Blake with cap in hand. His lackeys stood behind him.
Two of them held his spirited black horse while a third lingered near the road. The man near the road seemed agitated as he peered up and down it. He jiggled nervously on one foot.
Blake bowed, "Marion, it is a pleasure. May I come in? On business that is. It's about your late husband."
"Ralf? What of him?"
Blake gently pushed the door open and stepped inside. Marion moved back, worried more about possible debts than Blake himself. He closed the door on his men. "May I sit down, Marion?" He sat at the dinner table in Herbert's chair, at the head.
She sat down and folded her shift closer to her well-shaped body. Marion wasn't pretty in the conventional sense. Yet men noticed her refined features, and she had a warm personality that made her a desirable woman. There was one flaw in her character--she was too trustful. Her late husband took advantage of this to indulge his drunken ways and now Blake had his own wishes.