“I need the answer before we move on,” Guy said when, the next morning, Toli brought the freshly groomed horses, calmed and saddled.
He hadn’t slept at all that night. And not for the heat of the hall, made the more stuffy when the torches gutted. Neither had it been the air befouled by the reek of so many bodies. Of that he was used. Their snores too, though these had been particularly loud and discordant – like the bands of pipes and drums on a feast-day, competing. But even in quietness Guy wouldn’t have slept. It was that riddle the witch Hegrea had set him. He knew what the ‘green castle’; that was an imparked chase, typical with its high earthen walls and deep ditch. But which chase? Count Alan held three to Guy’s certain knowledge.
“Sir,” Toli said urgent and hushed. “You needs keep down your voice. Answers to riddles aren’t supposed to be yelled.”
Guy looked around him. But no one was near. Most were still sleeping, either in the hall or elsewhere. The builders hadn’t yet begun work. The castle fowl were taking advantage, scratching at the chip-strewn ground between the stacks of stones the masons had readied. There were a couple of brats in evidence, but they were chasing each other up and around the scaffolding. And a man, wide of waist, who heaved a slop-bucket over a low wall. The penned pigs within squealed their delight. A typical early morning scene. Yet Guy agreed, “We’ll talk once outside the gate.”
Yet he hesitated. (Toli sighed.) “Truly, I ought to take my leave properly, not sneak out at dawn. These are my family.” And vaunted indeed. Yet he had told Count Stefan he’d be away early.
Ay-la! He grinned at remembering the talk last night. He had a name for his mother. Marta. Marta, second daughter of Samson, Viscomte de Guincamp. And the de Lissay’s – he’d not known this before – claimed descent direct from the Romans! He glanced back at the hall. Yet Stefan still would be sleeping, and each day that passed made Guy’s mission more pressing. He couldn’t delay, not merely for the sake of good manners. Still, he left a message with the gate-warders to profusely apologise and profusely to thank. Then he chuckled again. Count Stefan, his cousin.
“Through marriage, Sir. Through marriage,” Toli just had to remind him.
“Ay, but not some low tenant’s daughter.” So much for Miles and his depressing story. “But, Toli, I’ve never asked . . . What of your mother?”
“Dead, Sir. Four months since.”
“Oh. I am sorry.”
Toli shrugged. “My lord holds the land for me.”
“Your . . . you mean Rainald?” Guy’s surprise spilled from his lips. “I’m sorry, I thought you—”
“Some low tenant’s son? Because my mother is Saxon?” Toli had been following, a respectful squire’s distance behind. Now he brought his horse alongside Guy.
“I know nothing of you,” Guy said as the realisation piqued him.
“Few do. But I have the answer to the riddle, Sir.”
“Wha . . . how?” At once he realised his surprise might offend. But he was surprised. The answer depended upon local knowledge, and even Guy had not that.
“It’s the bees and the Danes, Sir. And, Sir, we need to turn here to the east. Take the road back to York. Sir.”
Guy groaned but obeyed. Once again across the windswept moors, and even with a road to follow he’d no liking of them. Wide deserted places, making of the wiliest men a mere ant dropped willy-nilly upon a wide shore.
They rode on for a while, until away from human habitation. “So what’s this of Danes and bees?” Guy broke the unsettling silence.
“Treebrunna Chase, Sir.”
“Where’s that?” Guy had to admit, he’d not heard of it.
“You might know it better as Rafn’s Isle, Sir.”
“What!” Aye, Rafn’s Isle, he knew of Rafn’s Isle: Count Alan’s capite manor all the way back in Norfolk. “I think someone is playing with us. And you’ve still not explained how you reasoned it.”
“Danes to the east, Sir, the only way in? That’s the Dane family whose hall serves as gate-house. Them bees to the west? That’s Honey-ham. And to the south a knighted hart. That is a certain knight by name of Deorman, who holds land twixt the chase and the Garen. That leaves the falcon to the north. Likely the hawks’ mews are in the shelter of the north wall there.”
“How . . .?”
“My family attended the same hundred-court as the folks at Rafn’s Isle. Folks talk.”
Guy turned to glance at his squire. The only warning of their attackers.
They sprang as if plants from the empty moors. Children, they seemed to be at first, in tatters. Then Guy noticed the beards. Deformed creatures, in a sorry state, he hated to bat at their groping hands. Rather he’d empty his scrip for them. But they persisted. He drew his sword, and not even that scared them off. They wanted his horse. Toli chanted some kind of magical spell, likely learned from his Saxon mother. At that they started. Yet only at the sight of other travellers did they relinquish their holds. Then they melted again into the ground.
Guy stared after them, wondering what they could be.
~ ~ ~
“Where be-in your treasure? B’int the Red Lord give?” the ferryman said when he greeted them at the quayside in York. “You’re alacking a knack, my boy-lord.”
“Our Lord Alan was absent,” Guy said, tone weary. “We need a ship back to Cerdinga.”
As with the moors-crossing his sea-journey was not uneventful. Yet when pirates attacked the ship close by the Wash, trying to drive it onto the flats, Guy discovered something more of Toli. He had learnt well the use of weapons. A handy lad to have as support come a fight. And it seemed, as they hove into sight of Garenmua’s quayside at Cerdinga there would be a fight.
“What?” Guy demanded as the ferryman hurried them into the hold.
“Bigod’s men, white hammers on black. Everywhere, they be-in all over. You said of your brother?”
“No! He would not!”
But he mulled on that while he and Toli hid in the dark amidst rolls of furs, on sacks hard, lumpy and reeking of pitch. The day was hot, Guy scarcely could breathe. Through the boards he could heard the muffled talk. Bigod was looking for a young knight, haunted look, nondescript sword, green silk mantle, average height, dark hair, pleasantly proportioned, an adherent of every Frankish fashion. He might have a tubby spotty lad with him. He was wanted for treason.
“My own brother.” Guy’s fingers curled as he seethed. “I’ll smash the arrogant turd’s face to a pulp.”
“Sir,” Toli shushed in warning. “Else it’ll be our heads are pulped.”
“Nay. Not seen a one, my lords,” the ship’s captain answered, a Dane, as were most who plied the east coast. He reported the pirates off the Lynn vik, asked what Bigod was doing of them or was he leaving it to Tallboys. It was sarcastically said. He said he’d only moored at Garenmua while he refilled the water, that he was heading to Beccles along South River.
“That’s Bigod’s own hold,” panicked, Guy mouthed in the dark.
Bigod’s men said approximately the same. “We’ll send word ahead. They can search the ship thoroughly before any off-loading.”
Guy swore. How now were they to escape?
From outside the hold the ferryman said, as if talking to someone other, that they were to stay there while water was taken aboard. Guy sweated. Stay there, to be taken upriver and neatly delivered, straight into Bigod’s own hands. The ferryman had betrayed him.
“Shush, Sir! You’ll have them on us. And he hasn’t done such a thing, else he’d have handed us over.”
That was true. But still he couldn’t see how they could escape capture. Treason. Treason! He’d killed his brother for this. The cog creaked back into the flow for the tide.
They’d not gone far, not an inch of the way to Beccles, when the ferryman let him out of the hold. “We’re close to Knobesburgh,” he said. “See yon Roman castle. Na, your thanks b’int needed, my boy-lord. Our captain be full happy as having one over on Bigod. He’s to pull in again, just up ahead of us now. You be-in ready to jump, uh? Then you go lie full low. Haven’t a fear, I’ll come afetch you.”
They jumped. Then before he’d his footing, Toli pushed him into a clump of dark alders. “Flood’s receding, Sir,” he remarked as they huddled together.
The land behind them rose thick with blackberry-briars. Despite the unpredictable weather there’d been a good crop. Some village lasses had come to gather before another storm spoiled them. Guy could hear their chatter, hear their gossip, their laughter, though he’d not a glimpse of them. He prayed they’d not come closer. They’d probably not; they’d not risk a slip into the water. It lapped at his feet. He trusted to God that they’d not see him, muffled in the muted brown cloak. Trusted to God? But it was God got him into this mess, and then deserted him.
~ ~ ~
“You took your time,” Guy complained when the high-whiskered ferryman finally returned. The sun was setting, the vast flood before them turned to blood, and Guy’s legs had painfully stiffened with crouching.
“I had first to catch me a friendly boat to take me to Garenmua to fetch the keel. You think I been walking?”
Guy didn’t say but ay, he had thought that, with the time taken.
The ferryman took Guy as far as Herlesberg on the Garen, thus bypassing Norwich where Bigod’s men probably were waiting.
“You be-in now into the Red Count’s lands, so you’ll be safe. Nay, my boy-lord, I’m full no need of thanks from you. You go do as you must.”
“But . . .” Guy objected. The ferryman had helped them beyond any asking. He couldn’t just leave him without any thanks.
“Nay,” the ferryman held up his hands, his full head of iron-grey hair slowly shaking.
“Then tell me your name,” Guy begged of him. “That I might offer up prayers.”
‘Ho! To your White Kristi? Nay, my boy-lord.” He laughed.
“But your name?” Guy persisted.
The ferryman again shook his head and spoke no more – until he was back in the river’s flow. Then he called back to Guy, “Bruni. They call me Bruni Ganglari.”
“Sir,” Toli was nigh jumping; he reminded Guy of his priestly cousin on seeing the angels. “That’s . . .”
But Guy ignored him, instead watching the keel until hidden by bushes and a turn in the Garen.
“Sir,” Toli tried again. “You know what ‘Ganglari’ means?”
“Ay, ‘wanderer’. Let’s go find Count Alan.”
“But . . .” Toli stuttered.
Guy knew full well the name. But was it not enough that Christ’s own God was a convention of angels meeting, without now he’d been helped by the heathen’s one-eyed god.
~ ~ ~
The day was pleasant, the walk not long. The land here, gently rising, was white with wheat ready for cutting, not spoiled as he’d seen around Hreppessey. Then very soon ahead was the chase. Green, so many greens, so lush. Yet they must walk up the hill and then again down – through a hollow-way with arching trees topping, feet minding the mustard coloured puddles in the deep carters’ furrows. Then, as if walking into another land, the view opened upon another green valley. Except to the left, where towered the high green bank that protected the chase. A hawk hovered above them. “Is that bird following us?” But he scoffed at the notion. It could hardly be the same bird as he’d seen above the northern castle.
They came to the gate, set beside the river – the Linn as Toli told him, and it was only a stream. But that ‘only a stream’ had been powerful enough to cut a high scarp in the chalky subsoil where it was forced to break for the weirs and the barriers there. As to the gate, that was a Dane edifice if ever Guy saw one. It was formed of two halls, a connecting room over, but that wasn’t what shouted. Those posts and beams, the wood wherever exposed, all deeply carved with running ribbons and elongated intertwined beings, a riot of unidentified beasts.
“That’s Geirri’s hall,” Toli said with evident pride. “Geirri Oddsson. But he’s not the keeper so don’t you insult him. He’s proud.”
A woman, rounded face red, greeted them – sort of. “Shoo! Enough without strangers. Go, afore I go setting yon hounds on you.”
She stopped, her hand up to swipe at a wisp of hair that had escaped her kerchief. She squinted at Toli, head beginning to tilt, a puzzled look forming upon her face. “You are Etha’s son.”
Toli grinned. “Aunt Maeru!”
“Well! And, ay, I was sorry to hear of . . . but you’ve still a father. He sees you fine? Ay, I can see as he does.”
“Excuse me, good lady,” Guy prompted. “I hate to break a family reunion but . . .”
“My mother’s brother Hweatha’s wife Lissu is sister of Geirri’s wife Maeru,” Toli explained and laughed when Guy blinked. “But Maeru, my knight here – Sir Guy de Hamahall and kin to the Bretons – he’s seeking Count Alan.”
“Who is your father?” Guy asked, having just caught up on the talk.
“But, Sir, this is Lord Rainald’s son. Did you not . . .?” Maeru stopped, having seen Toli’s slight shake of his head. “Oh. Mouth, hey. So you’re seeking Count Alan? And aren’t we all.”
Guy wanted to ask, to verify, be certain: Toli was Rauf Rainald’s son? But he urgently needed to speak to Count Alan. What was this of ‘aren’t we all’?
“Woman!” called a man from behind the gate-divided hall. “What holds you? Ah, I see,” he said as he cleared the wall. “Passing strangers.” He sounded hopeful.
But Guy was still distracted. Young Toli, Rainald’s bastard? Rainald had kept that a secret. But what an honour to be entrusted with his son as his squire. And there Guy had complained of a mere two plough-lands at Hamahall. He wondered of what else he’d complained.
His attention was jolted back by the man who now was looking intently at him. No shabbily dressed villager this. He wore a red leather jacket that touched to his thighs, beneath it, and belted, a marigold tunic, and brick-red breeks tucked into his new-looking soft leather boots. Count Alan’s man, by the Mercian knot on his chest.
“Geirri Oddsson?” He thought it a good guess.
“And you are?”
“Geirri, this is Etha’s son,” Maeru cut in.
“I believe you. But who’s this one, come asking after our lord? And on foot like a pauper.”
“He’s akin to the lord,” Maeru told him, hushed and urgent.
“Please.” Guy held up a hand, trying to stop this misunderstanding from deepening. “I’m not kin to Count Alan. Only to his young brother. But I do seek Count Alan. It’s important and urgent.”
“He’s not here,” Geirri said with a knell of finality.
“Geirri, that’s not—”
“Hush, woman. So, sorry you’ve had an unneeded journey. If you hurry, you’ll find lodgings in Norwich this night. And mayhap a horse.”
“Geirri, you’ll not turn my kin away. And that’s no way to speak to a kin of our lord. Come.” She beckoned to Guy and Toli. “We’ll provide bed for you this night.” She cast a foul look at Geirri who looked about him, hands up and fussing.
Maeru took them to a lean-to behind the hall, left of the gate, that served for a kitchen and food preparation. A pot of picked herbs stood on a table along with a jug, while herbs in bunches swung from the ceiling. Cook-pots, all sizes, hung from nails in the wall. To one corner a lidded tub stood. It probably held beer. Guy wondered if he ought to sit there.
Maeru saved the decision. She pushed a squat stool towards him. He obediently sat. The sun as it streamed through the door lured his eyes. Not far from the hall the Linn silently passed, a fenced marsh alongside it. He could see a brown muddle of deer in the distance beyond that. Closer, there was a garden fringed with a small apple orchard, and beyond that a small grazing pasture with sheep – and a young woman. Lithe of body, head clasped by a Dane’s starched white linen falda. His eyes stayed on her. But at Maeru’s chuckle he turned, embarrassed to be caught in the staring.
He could hear Geirri’s deep voice. He was talking to someone outside. They used Dane-talk yet Guy understood it. He’d served with Easterlings though he didn’t speak their tongue.
“Any luck? Any clues?”
“Nay, not a one. Tracks go leading westward, same as hers, then vanish.”
“You’re athinking our Blide has it right?”
“I’m thinking we’ve trouble.”
“Trouble and visitors too. That young Toli of Etha’s, he’s gone and come with an unlikely one. Says he’s akin of the Bretons, though he’s none of their lilt.”
“Ought we to tell him?”
“Ought to send him to Nihel, down at the lodge – if they’re akin. Let Nihel say.”
“Have you yet spoken him, to Nihel? I’m atelling you, Geirri, he’s full close to flying. Nay, you’re steward here, it’s yours to do, so go.’
“Don’t you go ordering me, little brother.”
Danes, they’d not expect Guy to understand their talk. He thus feigned ignorance when Geirri and his brother came into the lean-to, the younger standing in the doorway and darkening the room. But Guy’s thoughts now whirled. Again Count Alan was absent. And this time, from the sounds of it, something untoward had happened. Guy wondered who the ‘she’ of their talk, and remembered the talk in Hindrelagh, too, of a nun and a scandal. As to Nihel, he supposed that was Count Alan’s other brother. Guy knew him rather as Count Neel.
“Guy of Hamahall.” He lifted his butt off the stool but he’d not offer a bow. He wasn’t yet sure of their status. Steward, but steward could be anything from a kitchen supervisor to a lord’s most trusted counsel.
Geirri’s young brother nodded acceptance. He was surly looking, like a child who deserved a slapped arse. And everything of him said ‘dark’ in some undefined way. It was more than his wild hair, black as pitch, more than his weather-darkened skin, more too than his clothes, all muted colours that suited his mood. As he moved Guy caught a glimpse of gold on his arm, previously hidden. “Hawk,” he introduced himself. Then added, “Oddsson – for what it’s worth.”
“Don’t you go starting again. Not with our guests,” Geirri growled at him.
“They’re eating?” Hawk asked as if to ignore him.
“Of course they’re eating,” Maeru answered before any could say.
Hawk nodded, apparently something of that had satisfied. He dropped to a sit on a barrel that served too as a seat and began to sharpen his knife. It measured a good eighteen inches.
Guy’s eyes flicked round. She stood in the doorway now Hawk wasn’t there.
“Blide,” Geirri greeted.
“I’m not asking of me, I’m asking of him.”
Clearly the youngest of the Oddssons, and the fiercest, Guy’s eyes are fixed upon her as a hunter a hart. Fine chiselled face, hair not visible beneath the falda yet from her dark brows he’d guess it wast black. Lapis-blue gown, though not silk nor linen, only wool, yet trimmed with ribbons of every hue. And in the gap at her neck where her chemise wasn’t tied, sat a long silver tile. As she moved the light caught and showed an engraved twisted lozenge. Guy supposed it a rune.
“Guy of Hamahall, our young Toli’s knight,” Maeru answered ahead of the men. “He’s here seeking Lord Alan.”
“Lord Alan’s in Eldsland, Gunnhild along with him.”
. _____ .
Next episode, 26th March: Eldsland