excerpts from The Year We Lived
Edith passed without challenge into the countryside which was wooded and boggy. The road followed the high ground, twisting and turning like a writhing eel, while on either side trees drank from the marshy pools. A short way along there was a road to the right. It was not well-trodden, but she knew it would take her out to the reed beds. The ground gave beneath her feet as she walked along it and she felt as though each step became harder than the one before. Finally, the trees lessened and gave way to vast marshes. The pools shrank to become deep waterways and the heavens stretched away before her. It was always cold here, and she pulled the deerskin tighter around her as she carefully picked her way down to the water’s edge. Drawing out a small knife Robert had given her two years ago for her twelfth birthday, she struck the blade through the stalk of the damp reeds, collecting them on a pile behind her.
The sun must have been shining somewhere beyond the clouds, but she never saw it until it was preparing to set. She berated herself for losing track of time and looked at the cluster of damp reeds she had harvested. Only now did she consider the question of how to return with them, frowning thoughtfully as she sheathed her knife. A moment later the blade was firmly clenched in her hand, this time as a weapon, not a tool.
Someone was watching her.
Edith did not know how she knew, but she was certain she was no longer alone. Perhaps she had seen a shadow moving, or heard a heavier rustle in the reeds than the wind or a bird would make. Whatever the reason, she was certain someone had their eyes on her, and equally certain it was someone she did not know. Robert had taught her how to use the tool as a defence, how to hold it lightly and move it with slight, delicate movements. But, as the frightening sensation of being watched by an unseen observer continued, Edith only gripped the handle all the more tightly.
“Who are you?” she demanded, but her gentle voice quivered like the tall reeds. “Where are you?”
“Not in the direction you’re looking,” laughed a voice from behind her. “But I live here. I should be asking who you are.”
She spun around to face the intruder, who only laughed again as her knife flew from her hand. Still she could not see him, and now she was unarmed. Her knife appeared before her, offered by an outreached hand which parted the dense reeds around it. She took the handle uncertainly and drew back the reeds to find the hand’s owner. He was kneeling in the tall plants, almost camouflaged in a pale shirt which, far from being a winter garment, hung loosely from his shoulders. His eyes were dark and set so far into his skull that no amount of the dying sun’s light could reach them. But it was his smile which caught her imagination and gave her cause to lower the small blade. True, it was mischievous, but it made him look like a child rather than a villain.
“You live here?” she whispered, sheathing the knife. “But I often come here, and I’ve never seen you. Have you seen me?”
“Not until today.” He drew the rushes further back and looked at the reeds she had collected. “You can’t carry all those back to the lea by yourself.”
“How did you know I was from the lea?” she whispered, turning the knife in her hand.
“Well, you’re not from the marsh, and the lea is the only settlement hereabouts.” He held up his hands in a surrendering gesture as he noticed her grip on the knife handle tighten. “I can help you carry them back.”
“Thank you,” she muttered, rising to her feet and hugging the damp reeds to her stained coat. “Do you live in the marsh?”
He gathered the rest of the reeds. “Hereabouts.” There was a mysterious twinkle in his eye as he answered, so Edith was unsure whether he was being truthful or trying to tease her.
“There aren’t many houses,” she pointed out. “And I thought I knew everyone who lived in each of them, right the way down to the miller at the end of the river.” She waited for him to follow her. “Where do you live?”
“Not in a house.”
“Are you from the garrison?” she asked, spilling her reeds to point the knife at him once more. His dark eyes glistened as they narrowed.
“You must really hate them.” He bent down to gather the reeds she had dropped, never taking his gaze from the point of the knife. “Have they harmed you? Or do you hate them for their accents?”
“Hate?” She sounded shocked by his choice of words. “I don’t hate them, but they hate us.”
“You are lucky, then, that I’m not one of them. And they do speak strangely.” He watched as she returned the knife to its sheath and began walking forward. “Why does Lord de Bois hate you?”
“He hates my brother,” she returned. “Robert has done nothing to deserve it, but last year alone he had to repel three attacks from the Normans.”
“Robert?” the young man asked. “The master of the lea?”
“Yes,” Edith returned, watching as her new companion paled before flushing a deep crimson, a change visible even in the dying sunset. “He is my brother, and those reeds are for his hearth.”
“I’d heard he had a sister. I didn’t expect to find her alone in the marshes collecting fuel. But these reeds won’t burn well.”
“They’re not meant to,” she answered, slightly affronted. “They’re to slow the burning of the yule block.”
She led him towards the road, at which point he looked anxiously around him, as though he expected the attack she had accused him of. In the twilight the spreading limbs of the tree might have hidden anything, their twig tendrils forming a tight hedgerow along the pathway. Edith continued ahead of him, never speaking a word. Similar thoughts were passing through her own head and she began to imagine the hands of the trees reaching out to take her. The Normans were feared throughout this corner of the land for their devious and underhand attacks on the people of the fens. They sought to conquer each corner of their new kingdom without any consideration for the people who knew and understood its landscapes. They would think nothing of striking down a young woman on the road, for it would be no different to slaughtering sheep or cattle. This feeling did not subside until she heard a familiar voice calling out to her.
“Liebling? Liebling Edith?”
“Alan?” she called back, her heart racing and, as she saw the tall flame of a torch approaching from further up the road, she felt all her fears slip from her. Alan rushed forward and looked down at her, a mixture of emotions visible on his face, culminating in one of extreme relief.
“You’re soaked, Liebling,” he began, looking down at her muddy coat and marked hem. “Your brother has sent twenty men out to find you. Where have you been?”
“At the marshes,” she replied, feeling suddenly confident in the appearance of this man. “I was collecting reeds.”
“Where are they?” Alan asked gently.
“He has them,” Edith returned, turning to look at the young man who carried her gathered fuel. She frowned to find she and Alan stood alone on the road. There was no sign of the dark eyed man, not even footprints. The only trace was the large bundle of reeds he had carried for her which were placed on the side of the path. She moved over to them, almost expecting to find him hiding behind them, but he was gone. “There was a young man,” she whispered, more as a reassurance to herself than an explanation to the guard. “He carried them for me. Where did he go, Alan?”
When the fool was dismissed later in the evening, Philip followed him out of the hall. He looked up and down the corridor but, despite having followed on the heels of the joker, he found the hallway empty.
“Impossible,” he hissed and turned once more, stumbling back as he found himself staring into the eyes of the fool.
“You seek me, Your Grace. But why? I am neither a chalice nor a chasuble. Surely you do not wish me to read the liturgy with you. You know how many years it has been since I attended Latin.”
“Seven, indeed,” the fool snapped. “Sometimes I forget.”
“You may be employed for amusement, but do not confuse it with mischief. I am too close now to let a fool upset my plans.”
“Peace,” the fool’s voice took on the disguise of the bishop’s tone. “At whatever cost.”
“Enough!” Philip growled, snatching the joker’s collar. “I did not ask Lord de Bois to do this to you. I told him he should not. Why, then, do you constantly scorn me and mock my plans?”
“Steady, Your Grace,” the fool replied, shrugging out of the grip the other man had on him. “That is not peaceful. Or perhaps you are returning to your former attempts at peace.” He spoke the last word with such venom that Philip took a step back. “I know what happened on that September day. I know what you did and what you seek forgiveness for. Your guilt has led you to do these things.”
“Silence,” Philip stammered.
“How five seconds earlier you might have saved a life, while five second later you would have lost your own. How wicked is fate!”
“I don’t believe in fate,” Philip spat. He turned as the door behind him opened, and watched as two guards bowed their heads respectfully, before continuing on their way. “I should have known you had found out.”
“Found out, Your Grace?” he laughed. “Nay, I watched you. I saw you, who professes a desire for peace, thrusting your sword into the bodies of both men.” He shook his marotte at the bishop and, without moving his own lips, threw his words from the miniature mannequin. “Peace at whatever cost.” Then from his own mouth, “You did nothing to save me from your brother and this mockery and cruel folly he placed on me. I’m simply returning the gesture.”
Philip watched as the fool vanished as spontaneously as he had appeared. He stood alone in the corridor now, lost in his bleak thoughts. Almost eight years separated him from his actions at Hastings, and in all those days he had never managed to shake the grief and guilt. Was peace always going to cost so much? Could he not find a way of obtaining it without bloodshed? He looked down at the cross which rested on his broad chest and frowned. Peace always demanded sacrifice and, if Christ had given his own life to offer such a thing, should he be willing to do any less? But he could not share his guilt with his brother. Henry would only mock him, laughing at his stupidity and panic. Lord de Bois was the soldier in their family, not he. So, although Philip was the eldest, his father had sent him to Rome and Henry assumed lordship.
He walked back into the great hall and returned to his seat beside his brother, listening as Henry prattled on: praising, mocking, and remembering events they had shared for no one’s benefit but his own. His wife listened to it all but said nothing. Hastings remained unmentioned, for which Philip was grateful. The fool had not told his master of the events which had happened there, or Henry would certainly have spoken of them.
All around Robert was the half-light of dappled sunlight. The trees overhead reached high up to the sun, but the scrub of the lower branches obscured his line of vision. There was movement to his left, subtle and subdued, but it was enough to make him turn. He had left t*he paths hours ago. He only vaguely knew where he was going and how to return to the Hall on the lakeside. But there had been something which had beckoned him further into the forest. Sliding back the bowstring so it was both tense enough to grip and loose enough to avoid strain, he stalked in the direction of the gentle movement.
He had been hunting since he was six, accompanying his father on hunts before he led his own. He knew it was not yet time to be looking for food in the forest, but his heart would not accept such reason. He paused as the sound became louder, and he crouched down so that he was sitting on his haunches. High ferns covered his view, and he waited a moment: he had seen too many hunts lost by impatient huntsmen. Now, he ducked under the low, sprawling branch of an oak and rose to his feet slowly. The forest was thicker here. Dense leafy branches crisscrossed above him, and he took a moment to focus on his prey.
He felt his mouth fall open as his eyes rested on the milky hide of a deer. It did not appear to have noticed him, although its ears pointed forwards and then back at regular intervals. It was rooting through the debris of the forest floor, kicking its hoof to help it forage. It was crowned with elegant antlers and it lifted its head to sniff the air, more like a dog than a deer.
Robert pulled back the string of the bow.
He was about to release the arrow when the stag turned to face him. The large dark-eyed gaze looked alien and wrong in the pale creature and he took in a sharp breath at the peculiar feeling the animal was trying to communicate with him. Spellbound, he lowered the bow as he noticed a bloody scar on the creature’s front quarters. The stag straightened its neck before shaking its head, its ears twitching long after its head was stationary. It continued to hold his gaze before it gave a low, booming roar and trotted into the forest. The wound did not hinder it, and nor did the hunter.
For many seconds, which turned to minutes, Robert stared in the direction the creature had gone. In sixteen years of hunting, he had never seen such an animal. He returned the arrow to his quiver and lowered his bow while he straightened to his full height. Turning, he found he was no longer alone. Sweyn stood there, his expression as dumbfounded as Robert’s own.
“You let it go, Robert.”
“You saw it?” Robert asked, making his voice as clear as he could.
Sweyn nodded. “The creature of the king. Some would say the throne belonged to he who had it.”
“Then, if you saw it, you also let it go. There are times when the hunt will yield the most, though you may return empty-handed.”
Sweyn gave a slight smile and nodded. “You are growing more like your father with every day.”
“I try, Sweyn.” Robert returned his expression with a broad smile. “I will not see our people trampled and forgotten in the surge of Norman inhabitation. That was what drove him to Hastings. It was to protect us.”
“If you fight for the king,” Sweyn said softly, “then you fight for his people. You have never blamed me for his death, Robert, but I was sent to protect him.”
“You were his finest warrior, Sweyn,” Robert sighed, unstringing his bow in the certainty he would not be drawing it again on this hunt. “Now you are mine. But I’m afraid the Normans do not value such skills in combat. Our only way to protect ourselves and our people is to remain unseen and obscure.”
“Then you don’t mean to fight de Bois?” Sweyn asked in disbelief. “What you said to the changeling, I thought you meant to confront de Bois for what he has done to Liebling Edith.”
“I do,” Robert said, displaying none of his inner turmoil. “But it must be on my own lands, not his. I shall fight him from the shadows. I don’t expect you to join me, Sweyn, for it’s almost an assassin’s life.”
“I swore to your father-”
“I know,” Robert interrupted. They walked in silence for a moment before he continued. “Dunstan will help me, Sweyn. He has the skills for this, but not the heart. I have the heart for this but not the skills.”
“You have both, Robert. That I knew how to find you does not mean any Norman would. You do not need the son of a fairy to help you.”
“I trust him.”
There was no room in Robert’s tone for Sweyn to argue and they walked on in silence. They found their voices as they journey back towards the Hall, where it sat wrapped in the safety of forest and marsh, with the huge lake at the foot of the hill to the east. The lake fed the river and the marshes before they, in turn, fed into the mighty sea, across which both Robert’s mother and enemy had come. He walked most days down to the side of the lake and would stare out across its calm surface, seeking its depths as it reflected the heavens and wishing he knew the extents of these things, contemplating how they corresponded to himself. Was he always to skate the surface of the world, questioning what depths he could reach while he stared, dreaming of heaven?
With a renewed spring in his step, he left the Hall and collected his long fishing spear, walking out in the direction of the lake.