1092 AD Ledes
He rarely dreamed now. In the beginning the night mare had ridden every time he closed his eyes, slipping through the blackness like a cutthroat and gripping him so close he could smell its graveyard stench. Then, slowly, almost without him knowing, it had faded to become no more than a memory.
But last night it had returned, more powerful for having been away so long. Screaming, growing louder and louder until it filled his head then stopped suddenly, dropping into dead, empty silence.
A welter of noise filled the space. Sounds he hadn’t noticed before. Shouting, hooves. The metal rasp of weapons drawn. The crackle as a roof caught fire and the night flamed.
He was hobbling through the darkness, moving quietly and trying to keep himself out of sight. But even when he was a mile away and more, he could still hear the soldiers shouting in their foreign tongue; no doubting the meaning and the hatred. Killing, rape, the devils in hell let loose to roam, all the order and the law gone from the earth. Blades hacking at flesh and tearing at souls.
Somewhere, someone must be alive. Or the world would all be blood.
When he woke, he was breathing so hard that his chest hurt, hands clenched tight into fists, tears tumbling down his cheeks.
Trembling, he’d had to ease himself out of the bed, careful not to wake Inga, then paced up and down on the packed earth floor, feeling its cold hardness, it realness, until the demons danced away. Even now, in the daylight, he could taste the smoke and death on his tongue, a poison no ale could take away.
For the dream to come back…it had to mean something.
The villagers always closed their doors as the soldiers passed. It was safer, like a cantrip made to keep evil at bay. There were ten men this time, churning up the mud as they marched rapidly along the road. Beyond the houses and the church, their feet clattered as they crossed the bridge over the beck until the hard beat of marching softened into the distance.
Every week it was the same, a patrol sent out, as if the Normans were fearful that people might flare up and oppose them again. But who was left to raise an army, to forge the weapons? Who had the will? The army had conquered, it had destroyed the land far and wide. The soldiers had used their iron and steel to choke away any hope.
The Harrying, that was what they called it.
But Death was the word. That was the truth of it.
All around, the manors had burned. Animals butchered in the fields and left to rot on the ground. Not only the stock: people were killed, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, dying unshriven and unburied. Those still alive fled, praying for safety, begging for deliverance. But God had turned His face away, unhearing, unforgiving. No food, no shelter. No hope. No life. They died beyond counting during the winter, children and parents withered to sacks of bone and heart and flesh until they barely made a meal for the wolves.
But Ledes…Ledes remained as it was, spared. A miracle, that was what the people here believed. God’s blessing had saved them. But he knew that the reality spoke far less of heaven and much more of might. It was a military decision, nothing more than that. A finger stabbed down on a rough-drawn map. Keep this place with the ford. We can have our men there.
Erik brushed the wood shavings from his lap and put the knife back in his belt. He’d whittled the end of the post to a sharp point that would go easily into the ground. Since Sunday, his wife had been reminding him that the gate between their toft and the pasture needed repair; the post had rotted.
It was there in his head, but every hour of daylight had been filled. He was the reeve, elected by the others when the manor became property of the monks. Each dispute about the size of a villager’s planting strips, who should do what, when they should do it, ended with him.
Erik sighed. With the start of spring ploughing and planting, it had been one task after another. Decide this, measure that, give an order, settle an argument. Finally, last night, the procession of people hammering on the door stopped.
The night mare had visited and ridden on, thank God. No one had needed him this morning. And now he had time to do something for himself. He hoisted the post on to his shoulder and limped to the end of the garden. When he was young he’d jumped from a tree and broken the bone. It was never set properly; every winter it still ached.
On the horizon, ravens swooped down on something, then scattered high into the air and a larger bird dived. Spring and the ground was beginning to soften after the long winter. Pray God for a warm summer and a good harvest.
A scent of life drifted on the air. Off in the distance he could see lambs, newborn and tentative, discovering the astonishment of movement. Every year it was the same, and every year it enchanted him and made his heart soar.
He loved this place. It was home, it was comfort. He cherished the people in Ledes, even when their voices and demand and questions wearied him. Erik had been surprised when they put him forward as reeve, grateful when they voted for him.
In return he took all his responsibilities seriously, sitting and making his judgements at the manor court, tallying harvests, making sure the priest received is tithe and the monks in York had all they were owed.
He’d been on God’s Earth for almost forty years, as close as he could guess; an old man now, with all the aches and pains and failings of age. But he tried to do his duty by everyone.
And he put them all in front of himself. That was what his wife told him. Inga was right. But what could he do? He couldn’t turn them away or make them wait. So jobs like this were tucked into odd, quiet hours when the chance came.
Erik used his knife to dig into the soil, making a hole for the tip of the wood. He’d set a rock aside, heavy enough to need two hands. Lifting it high, straining, he hammered at the post. The dull sound of stone on wood, again and again and again, until it was seated securely. Now the gate between his toft and the field would close properly; no animals would wander into the garden and eat what his wife grew. Inga would be happy.
The manor had improved since it became the property of the monks. They paid rents every quarter day now instead of giving their labour, and what man wouldn’t work harder for himself than for a lord? But the monks had also taken a tenth of the land to graze their sheep. The best pasture, of course, and the villagers had to tend them. That gave less for fallow or farming. A gain and a loss.
His eyes followed the line of low trees that grew by the stream marking the northern edge of the manor. The villagers were busy with ploughing and sowing and digging. At least if they were occupied, he’d have some time. And he still needed to get seed in his own strips.
He stretched, an ache of satisfaction in his arms, then turned towards the house. For a moment the clouds parted and the sun shone, the colour and brightness welcome against the grey. Erik smiled, then caught a glint of metal from the corner of his eye. Two of the soldiers were running back along the road to their palisade.
Suddenly every sense of pleasure vanished. He was alert, a prickle of fear running down his back.
Some of the villagers claimed that away from their fort and without their weapons, the Normans were fine. At times, they could even be good company in the alehouse as they drank and gambled. Exactly the same as they were, a few said, men with laughter and dreams and hopes. One or two had even tried to learn some English, a bridge of half-formed words and gestures that entertained some of the girls.
But Erik wasn’t convinced. He’d seen them at their worst, all those years before, and the memory stayed raw and bloody. He chose to keep a wary distance.
‘I heard them,’ Inga said as he entered the house. She looked up from the bobbin as she spun yarn, tilting her head towards the open shutters. ‘You’d have thought the devil was after them, the way they were going.’
‘People were stopping work in the fields to watch.’ The ploughmen had pulled up their oxen. Even the boy scaring the crows had halted, his mouth open wide.
‘Something bad must have happened.’
‘Yes,’ Erik agreed. Whatever it was, evil or good, as reeve he needed to know. ‘I’ll go and talk to the priest.’
She snorted. ‘He won’t know any more than you do.’
He smiled gently at her, this woman who’d borne him six children. Two had survived, a boy and a girl, both grown now, with their own lives. ‘No. But he’ll want to find out. We can walk down to the fort. You know how he is, he likes to ask questions. They’ll probably tell him.’
‘He does love his gossip,’ she sighed, and he laughed. It was true. Father Adolphe chased down every last snippet of rumour, worrying at it like a terrier. And once he’d collected it he’d pass it on as if it was a vital secret he’d uncovered. A villager’s drunkenness, some flaring argument that passed in an hour, they were all grist to his day.
‘I know one thing,’ Erik said into the silence. ‘Those soldiers weren’t carrying good news.’