Chapter 1 – Midwinter 1006 – Northman
He pulled his cloak tighter to his shaking body, in an effort to ward off the chill air and streaming rain that was hitting him directly in the face and pooling down his frozen cheekbones. His eyes were steely and fixed in place, the only thought in his mind that he must reach his father as soon as possible.
His mother had come to him and told him that they were to leave the house in Lichfield with all haste, and that he’d need to assist her in getting his brothers and sister ready for the journey. He hadn’t questioned her words, completely out of character for him, but then, he’d never heard such seriousness in his mother’s voice. It was the first time in his ten years that he’d heard fear in her shaky voice.
He wondered if he’d have leapt to his duties quite as promptly if he’d not overheard the Archbishop’s message delivered by one of his household troops. He shrugged the thought aside. It was irrelevant. He had heard the message and he knew of his father’s, if not disgrace, then dressing down. Rage burned within him, bright and true. His father was a good man. The best. Even he knew that. He was respected and feared in equal measure. He was fair and honest, always taking the time to discuss issues with both sides of the party. Men vied to have his support at the shire courts, and quaked in fear when he refused to give it.
To know what the King had done to his father filled his heart with hatred. He knew he shouldn’t think so, but whilst the thoughts were his own, they could bubble happily through his mind, in time to the pounding of his horse’s hooves on the hard frozen ground they traversed.
Besides him Leofric sat miserable atop his own horse. He was a little more forthcoming with his anger, his slender shoulders rigid where they held the reins of his horse and every so often, he muttered something foul that he’d learnt from a member of his father’s household troop. Northman wanted to chastise him but as he agreed with his every word, he was letting him alone. Time would come soon enough when they’d be forced to guard against everything they thought, let alone said. This time alone, in the sheeting rain was theirs and theirs alone.
For now, all he wanted was to see his father, and the same determination had coloured his mother’s every move that day. Brisk and to the point, she’d ruthlessly rushed through their home packing, scrupulously only what was theirs to take, her face white and set with suppressed anger.
And then there’d been old Wulfstan. His hair all but white, he’d trembled at the news, as he had when Eadric had made his unexpected visit earlier in the year demanding that he foster Northman. That time his father had miraculously appeared and headed the situation off. This time, he’d not, despite Wulfstan’s longing glances at the doorway that Northman had watched with sadness. Northman had felt pity for the man, as close to his grandfather as he’d ever had, and he’d gone to him, and helped him pack his own possessions, mindful to keep him out of the way of his mother’s bustling and efficient servants. His slow movements would have occasioned much muttering and frustration, for all that they’d not have meant it. There was no one in their household who did not respect the aging man. No one.
With the help of Leofric, they’d taken the old man outside, almost speechless with shock, and they’d saddled his just as old but sturdier horse, and wrapping him in two thick wolf pelts and cloaks, had assisted him into the saddle. Only then had Northman run back inside what had once been his home, and gathered his own small collections of possessions and stuffed them into a handy sack that he wore strapped across his back. An old and much loved wooden sword, a board and wooden pieces and most importantly, a tiny shield Wulfstan had gifted to him when he could barely walk.
He now purposefully rode besides Wulfstan, and whilst the old man didn’t speak, his more sociable horse was clearly pleased to have the company. Between the mutterings of Leofric, and the silence from Wulfstan, Northman sat hunched and miserable, but braver than he’d ever felt before. His mother had, by her acceptance of his actions, made him responsible for his brother and his father’s closest confidant on the way back to Deerhurst. It filled him with pride.
Irritably he wiped the bitter tears that fled down his face. His responsibility came as a bitter tonic when it was thrust upon him at such a time of crisis. Besides him, Wulfstan glanced at him and coughed drily,
“Come lad, no need for that. Your father will be hale no matter what the King does to him. He’s a wise man, more than aware of the King’s sometimes contrary nature.”
Northman glanced at the steadiness in the man’s voice in shock. The state of him earlier, he’d not expected such stoicism.
“But, none of it makes sense.”
“Nothing about Court politics will make sense to a ten year old.” Wulfstan chuckled, not unkindly. He wiped angrily at the rain that drizzled into his face. “The King has his favourites and he has his men who he can rely on to do what needs to be done. Sadly, on occasion, he confuses the two. He’ll come to his senses soon enough, or he won’t and your father will recover his position anyway. In the eyes of all who know him, he loses nothing. If anything, the King loses more because he shows how little regard he has for those who are his genuine loyal followers. The respect most men and women hold your father in should be obvious to you. The hasty actions of the King will not devalue him in anyone’s eyes. And certainly should not in yours.”
Northman looked away to consider the words, and realised with a start that Wulfstan too was according him more respect than before. He was speaking to him as if he was a man grown.
“Thank you for your words,” Northman uttered, incredulity colouring his voice, “I’ll think on them further.”
“I know you will, lad, and that’s why I’ve spoken them to you. And you have my deepest thanks for your assistance earlier. You’ll be as wise and just as your father with a few more years under your belt.”
Northman felt his cheek flush with embarrassment at the compliment from the man who he’d always held in high regard.
“And just remember who taught you everything you know,” Leofric interjected into the conversation, his voice boyishly high with delight at undermining Wulfstan’s words of endorsement. Northman cast him a barely veiled look of annoyance, but was greeted with a huge cheeky grin on Leofric’s face, and he heard Wulfstan chuckle. Huffing quietly to himself, he turned back to his thoughts. Younger brothers were well and good, most of the time.
At his horse’s feet, his hound ran swiftly besides him and he peered into the slowly descending gloom. Mid-winter; not a time to be on the road. He was looking frantically for the abbey where they’d find shelter for the night but he feared they wouldn’t reach it before full dark fell. With a quiet word to Leofric to stay besides Wulfstan, he rode to his mother’s side.
Her face was white and pinched; blue tinged with cold and a shot of fear pierced Northman’s heart. She’d not long since had his baby brother, and this rushed journey was the last thing she needed in the black of winter. A smile touched her face as she saw her oldest son.
“Mother, are we far from the abbey? Only it’s growing dark. Should we light brands?”
She peered into the gloom as she considered his question.
“It shouldn’t be far now, but perhaps you should check with Lyfing. He’ll know better where we are.”
With a tight smile for his mother and a poke of his tongue at his younger sister who sat beside her and had been doing the same to him throughout their conversation, he turned his horse and cantered back towards the front of their tightly formed line. Sisters, or at least his only sister, never seemed to see the severity in any situation. She even seemed to be enjoying this furtive canter through the winter landscape.
The majority of his father’s men had travelled with him first to the Witan in Shropshire, and then to do battle with Swein, but enough remained that they were adequately protected as they cantered through the cold day. In total ten men rode with the small party of children and servants and the veritable herd of hounds who, only by the intervention of God, managed to avoid the horse’s hooves.
Lyfing was taking his duties seriously and when Northman called to the man, he pulled his horse up short and waited for his Lord’s youngest son to catch him.
“What is it Northman?” he queried, “Does your mother have some new command for me?”
“No, just my question Lyfing. Should we light brands or are we nearly at the abbey.”
Lyfing, as Northman had done moments before, peered into the gloom and then gave a cry of delight.
“Over there my young Lord. I can see lights, as I was expecting. Now come, I need a warm fire and some food in my belly.”
Lyfing, calling attention to the faintly glowing lights of welcome, and the occasional waft of smoky air, directed their party to the abbey.
Northman felt himself relax a little at the news. Not home yet, but more home than not home. He’d see his father, soon, and then he could assess the value of Wulfstan’s words for himself.
They found a warm welcome within the abbey where concerned monks assisted his mother and sister and old Wulfstan, settling them around the huge roaring fire and feeding them a warming soup. There had been exclamations of surprise when they’d first arrived but in no time at all, everyone had been settled, the horses stabled out of the rain, and a strange calmness had settled around the great hall. Northman, counting himself amongst the men, had slept within the hall, wrapped in his cloak, exhaustion and outrage warring with each other only briefly before he’d fallen asleep.
When he woke in the morning it was to a day dark and gloomy, the sun still some time away from fully rising. He’d glanced around in confusion, before recognising the men who milled around the hall. His father’s men. Jumping to his feet, he’d wound his way to Oscetel, talking quietly to an alert looking Lyfing.
“Your father’s not here Northman, but I’ve come with another ten men to escort you all home.”
Nodding to show he understood, he turned away to rouse his mother and sister. He liked Oscetel; he was always to the point and didn’t hold with the view that it was acceptable to keep young boy’s waiting for answers. But, he wasn’t his father and he couldn’t help wishing that he’d come too. Turning back abruptly he thought to ask,
“Is father well?”
A grimace fleetingly crossed Oscetel’s face.
“He’s well. A little sick of heart when I left him, but he’s not injured. We had a fine time with Swein. Now hurry, and then you can see for yourself.”
Relieved his father wasn’t missing due to an injury, he quickly set about rousing his mother, and then went to find Wulfstan. The old man slept deeply, and for a moment he worried that his stillness alluded to something a little more sinister, but with a few shakes and nudges, Wulfstan woke. Confusion creased his face as he looked from his young Lord to his surroundings, but it cleared quickly enough.
“Oscetel is here with more men to escort us home.”
“Good, I’ll let my guard down a little today then,” Wulfstan, quipped, and Northman smiled at the attempted humour.
“Perhaps I will too,” he retorted, hunting around for Wulfstan’s boots and cloaks.
Wulfstan laughed drily at him and once dressed, rubbed his hair affectionately as he walked from the small cubicle he’d slept within.
“You’re a good lad, don’t forget that.”
A hasty breakfast of hardened bread and cheese saw them mounted and on their way. The day was clearer than the day before, but the dampness chilled even inside huge cloaks, and it was a miserable day of perseverance. Even having Oscetel and the other men recounting tales of their newest encounter with Swein and his men couldn’t lift Northman’s spirits, and he almost cried when the familiar sight of his birth home came into view, smoke puffing in welcome through the thatch.
This was his home, his birthright, so different to the house in Lichfield. Here, he could be himself, let his guard down a little, play with his brothers and sister without fear of who might see or comment on what he was doing.
Sitting straighter on his horse, he wiped his listing hair from his eyes, setting his face in a bright smile whilst besides him Leofric kicked his horse to a tired gallop, desperate to see their father. His attempts at acting the young Lord abandoned, he too kicked his horse onwards, the beast as eager as him to be near home. He just wanted to see his father. Nothing else mattered.
The wind rushing around his clammy face, his eyes focused on the door of his house, he shouted with joy when his father ambled through the front door, his hand shielding his eye so that he could see who approached his house.
All attempts at maturity beyond his years evaporated as he flung himself into his father’s waiting arms, and he sobbed with relief. His father. He was here, as immovable as stone, as unchanging as Heaven.