Tuesday, 12 August 2014
Old Nan's story
“Tell us a story old Nan.” the child said, her brother nodding in agreement.
The old woman gathered her shawl around her shoulders as she stirred the fire in her smoky hovel. “What kind of story?”
“One about the old times, before…” the little girl faltered.
“With magic, faeries and trolls!” the little boy interrupted.
“Just one then,” the old woman said “I don’t want your parents to worry about your absence. Let’s go out into the sunlight, look how the light shines through the leaves.”
They all sat out in the glade, the old woman’s eyes looked up into the branches, listening. She smiled, looked down and began…
It wasn’t so very long ago when magic was all around, when the laughter of faery folk would be on the edge of hearing of lonely travellers journeying through the green woods. Not so long ago, when monsters were a reality of life, when dragons were remembered in stories around the fire, when the bleak moors and treacherous marshes were the abode of trolls and their night-stalking kin.
In such a place, not far from here, in a land of ancient kings, to loving parents Edith was born. They weren’t rich but neither were they poor. Edith’s father was a liege man of the local lord. He was granted fertile lands which he farmed. In return he was on call to offer military service to his lord and helping to collect taxes from poorer households in his locality. He was a firm but fair man, aware that those less fortunate than he needed grain and animals to see them through the winter and replant the fields come the spring.
Her mother was kind and loving, she was there to kiss her goodnight, sing the trolls away from under her cot and clean scratches and scrapes from brambles and thorns, dabbing away tears and childhood fears. For a while she had her mother all to herself but when her brother Alfred was born she had to share her. He wailed and cried, constantly demanding her mother’s time. Whereas before the two of them would have played, or read her mother’s book of hours, or mended clothes or adorned them with embroideries.
Edith’s early years were a memory of sun dappled light through the green leaves of summer, of the laughter of the faeries in the branches of the trees like clear crystal bells, of the magic of the seasons; misty autumns to winters’ cold frost that froze the marshy pools and left blanketing snow on the roofs and fields, before yielding again to bright spring and the warm summer days. It was a rhythm, regular and comforting.
But now there were chores that needed doing around the house and in the surrounding fields, the cows needed milking, the butter needed churning, the list was endless. When she could she would escape to the nearby woods to find solitude and a haven from the shouts of “Do this” or “Do that”. She dreamt of change lying under the green boughs in the forest. The invisible folk that hid in the leaves heard her; her wish would be granted soon enough, but when it came it would be unwanted. The spirits of the forest demanded payment but had no need of coin.
Towards the end of summer her father’s summons came. His lord required all of his available knights and men at arms. Her father readied his weapons and bid his wife and baby son goodbye. Edith was upset and hid in the forest, her weeping stifled the laughter in the trees above. Her father found her, kissed and hugged her, told her how precious she was and reluctantly rode away, knowing the crops needed harvesting in a few short weeks’ time.
She was left with her mother and younger brother, with more chores to do to cover her father’s absence. Some tenants helped with the harvest as September turned to October. The mists hung thick over the haunted fenlands and creeping between the tree trunks up the wooded hills. There came a day when a hush settled on the land as the world held its breath. There was no laughter in the tree tops anymore and large muddy footprints were seen after a frightful might marking where Fen Trolls had walked beyond their swampy home.
Word spread slowly from the other end of the kingdom; a great battle had been fought and lost. Edith’s father was among the lost, fallen beside his lord. Her mother cried inconsolably; priests spoke of the end of times oft foretold, that God was visiting a great judgement upon the kingdom brought about by ungodliness. Edith knew better however. She went to the woods and shouted curses up at the branches, but winter was rapidly approaching; if the spirits, now residing in the Mistletoe or Holly, heard her they remained quiet.
As winter set in, stragglers from the battle limped home; some were maimed or fevered. The road east was littered with those who had yielded to death despite their overriding homing instinct. Edith’s mother tended those she could with broth and words of comfort. Some were merely passing through but others she knew as bondsmen of her husband. Those could barely look her in the eye, for shame of leaving his body, and the King’s, on that bloodied ridge. All bore a fear and wished to get home, as if every moment was precious and their life candles were almost burnt away.
With Spring arrived these fears became flesh. Sir Huw FitzOsborn and his retainers came. With him came Sir Guy de Grieu and his small retinue who were travelling further westward. Their words were harsh, their language strange, while their desires were all too obvious. All hopes that they were all passing through dissolved when Sir Huw announced that the lands and the folk hereabouts, were now his. Edith didn’t understand the full implication until she realised that she, her brother and mother were now dependants of Sir Huw’s also. Without waiting for the formality of marriage Sir Huw took the lady of the house to his bed. Her protestations were silenced when the squawking Alfred was passed to one of the Men-at-Arms; the threat unspoken but implicit. Sir Huw’s retinue were equally as lust driven and demanding of the serving women around the house. It mattered not if they were married; protesting husbands had daggers held against their throats. Edith kept out of the way, especially when the mead and ale was being drunk; she felt the eyes of Guy de Grieu, in particular, often upon her. She was relieved when Sir Guy left after two days of enjoying her future step father’s hospitality.
Sir Huw and her mother were soon married. At least now as his ward Edith had a degree of value to him. She took young Alfred under her protective wing. The new master despised the living reminder of the previous Lord of this holding and was jealous of the attention the little one got from his wife. When drunk he threatened to hurl the infant down the well; “Why not?” he would drunkenly roar in his cruel alien accent, “He’ll only grow up seeking revenge against me.”
There was no more escape into the woods as spring turned to summer and summer to autumn. Edith was fully occupied through this time in looking after Alfred and helping around the homestead, especially as her mother soon began to show; Sir Huw had wasted no time in putting his pup in her and robbing Alfred and Edith of any claim to their inheritance.
Sir Huw and his men did little to help with preparation of the fields or husbandry of the livestock. They spent their time in eating, drinking or practising their swordplay, unlike Edith’s father and armed retinue, who had always helped in the farm work. Instead the newly made serfs had to do all the work for the main estate, to the detriment of their own farm plots; those who carried fresh scars or maimed bodies were worked particularly hard.
It was a hot and humid late summer’s day. Edith’s mother was getting close to her time, two elderly women came to help as her contractions began. Edith and Alfred were slipping out to the stables as Sir Huw and his men sat at the hearth with cups of mead. Their presence was betrayed by Alfred’s gurgling. Sir Huw eyed Edith, she noticed his eyes look her over in a way she had never been looked at before.
“Ho girl,” Sir Huw said in his alien accent, “Once my son is born, you will marry Guy de Grieu and join our houses.”
Edith gasped in shock, “But who will look after Alfred if I have to leave here?” she stammered.
Sir Guy looked down at Alfred, moving the blanket covering him. The boy now had a mop of hair upon his head. Sir Guy eyed Alfred and Alfred eyed him back, he held the man’s gaze.
“Foul little cuckoo,” Sir Huw said, tearing his eyes from the child, “I care not. I will not bring up another man’s child, especially a spawn of your father‘s. Maybe I will take him to the coast and sell him to a Saracen trader.”
He laughed cruelly as Edith ran out from the room with Alfred in her arms. She made for the woods, for the glade where the sun shone dappled through the green leaves. But the leaves were already ragged and beginning to turn brown, the glory of summer a mere memory. Edith cried in despair up at the trees, she knew there was always a price to pay. Alfred smiled as he listened to the wind whispered voices in the branches.
That night a storm arose sweeping over the land, the clouds grew dark and ominous, twisting, bulging, pregnant with rain and the fury of Thunor. In the homestead a storm erupted, as Sir Huw raged, his wife struggled to bring his son into the world; a fight she lost. Huw ranted at the mid wives calling them witches and crones responsible for the death of his wife and son. “No matter,” he said to his drunk companions, “She was old and Edith is young.” A plan forming in his mind. He laughed at the ghost of his dead wife’s husband. Then he wondered. “Where is she? Where is the cuckoo bastard?”
Outside the storm raged and lightning flashed. The trees swayed as rain and winds lashed at the ragged leaves. The lightning exploded from the sky reaching towards the earth, as Thunor’s hammer smote his anvil. The fen trolls left the marshes, hungry for flesh and souls to reap…
The old woman gasped. “Look how the sun dips! Matilda you must take Edward home, your parents will be worried.”
“But Old Nan, you haven’t finished the story.” Matilda complained.
“Come back tomorrow and I will finish it,” the old woman smiled. “Now be gone, or be Troll food!”
The children laughed as they ran from the glade to find the path.
“And stay aware from the old ruin, its haunted by malicious ghosts of the burnt men!”
“Yes Nan.” they called, laughing.
The laughter was like the ringing of crystal clear bells, echoing in the sun dappled branches above her. She looked up and smiled, her ancient eyes soft and loving in recognition.
“That’s right sweet brother, I was telling them our story.”