© R M E Winter
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
PLEASE READ THIS NOTE! - Italics disappear when you upload your work on YWO, so I have used ** to indicate words in italics. Obviously I will replace them with italics when/if I submit this story to an agent or publisher. Sorry to labour the point, but five reviewers so far have said they think I should use italics, not ** - I would if I could!
When they murdered my half-sister Alauda, I turned my back on her, and ran.
So many times I've wondered, since that terrible dawn … *Should I have stayed? Should I have tried to save her? *
The answer is always *no.* I was thirteen years old, unarmed, and completely unpractised in fighting. The Master had painful ways of discouraging his slaves, even me, the son of his slave mistress, from inflicting expensive injuries upon each other. We never fought, and of course as slaves we never had access to weapons of any kind, let alone any training in using them. So what could I have done against a force of heavily-armed barbarians, except give up my own life without the slightest hope of saving hers?
If I hadn't run, we would all have died: me, and Grendel, and little Mopsus, we would certainly have perished. So I ran, and I made them run as well, and we all survived; but life was never again as sweet as it used to be.
That day had begun like any other. The skies above the grey wolds were slowly lightening to pearl and buttermilk and rose, and a light ground-mist hovered over the lower-lying fields. For once I was in no mood to appreciate the beauty of the morning, for I had been up all night with Grendel, tending a sick cow. He and I were always entrusted with the difficult births, he for his strength and his deep, instinctive knowledge of all beasts, and I because I was the only person who was not afraid to work with him. Grendel was a strange, wild creature even then. He could speak no more than a few simple words, and he had only the haziest understanding of anything except the sheep, pigs and cattle that he cared for. Most folk called him a half-wit, and he would long ago have been made outcast and driven away had it not been for my lady half-sister. She had always treated him kindly, and he was devoted to her.
After a long, weary struggle the cow had dropped her calf in the small hours of the morning. We delivered it safely, but it was a cross-birth, and it took all our skills, and the ropes, and Grendel’s massive strength, to bring it forth alive. Afterwards the calf was well enough, but the cow sickened, and we were still sitting up with her as dawn began to break over the eastern wolds. Across the fields I caught sight of the little kitchen slave, Mopsus, coming out of the villa to bring us our morning rations, and then I saw him suddenly turn aside and break into a run, waving with his free hand, calling out in a voice of happy excitement.
Coming up the road towards the villa was a horse and rider, an unusual occurrence since the Master and his wife and sons had abandoned their country estate some weeks back. As rumours of barbarian invaders grew stronger, they had all decamped to the greater security of the nearby garrison town, leaving behind just a handful of us slaves to mind the villa and tend the livestock.
I narrowed my eyes, and it was the horse I recognised first, an elegant little mare, grey as the morning mist, trotting briskly and tossing her neat, pretty head - *Nebula!* And then of course I knew the rider: Alauda, my lady half-sister, slender and straight in the saddle, her white stola gleaming in the dawn light and a fine blue cloak billowing about her. She had left us on her marriage some six months before, and we had not seen her since. It was no secret that she had not gone happily, for her husband was virtually a stranger to her, and she had loved her family and her home in the high wolds. I still wonder sometimes what brought her back that day. Was it simple homesickness? I shall never know.
Mopsus reached her and she reined in and slipped down from the horse’s back to give the boy a hug. I shook Grendel to rouse him, and pointed to where the two stood together, no more than a quarter of a mile from us. He recognised Alauda, and smiled his slack-mouthed smile as he grunted her name. She raised a hand to us in greeting, then we saw her lift Mopsus into the saddle and send him cantering in our direction.
'Welcome home, Alauda!' I called out, and she waved again in acknowledgement. Then she walked on up the road towards the villa, and I wondered if she knew that the family was gone, and she would find no one there but a handful of slaves.
Mopsus reached us, flushed with pride to be on Nebula's back. He loved animals, horses especially, and it was typically kind of Alauda to give him the treat of this ride.
That kindness cost her life.
A magpie's sudden harsh alarm call startled us, and sent Nebula skittering and prancing. Mopsus clung to her mane as Grendel caught her bridle and subdued her with his sheer strength, while I stroked her nose and gentled her and told her she was a foolish creature, so she was, to be afraid of a silly bird. Then I walked her round to calm her, yet she still trembled for no reason I could see, and the whites of her eyes betrayed her fear. Mopsus slid off her back and opened up his pack to give us our rations; but suddenly she threw up her head, tearing the bridle from my hand. As I reached out to catch it again, she reared up with a snort of terror and whirled away from me. Then she was gone, bolting as if the fiends of hell were at her heels.
Fiends of hell there were, but Nebula was not their quarry.
Wild yelling and the clashing of sword on shield shattered the morning stillness, and we spun around to face the eastern wolds. Some twenty barbarian warriors, brandishing swords and spears and flaming torches, were hurtling down the slope at terrifying speed towards the villa, and the small slender figure of Alauda.
'Run, Alauda, run!' I screamed. Grendel clenched his enormous fists and threw back his shaggy head.
'They come with swords!' he howled.
'Run!' I yelled again, and grabbed Mopsus as he started back towards his mistress. She was nearly a quarter of a mile away, the target of a dozen or more of the racing, yelling mob. On Nebula, she might have got away, if she could have controlled the horse's terror. More likely she would have been thrown, and the outcome would have been the same.
'Run!' I shouted uselessly, for how could she hope to outrun that terrible tide of death? Then some of the warriors checked their pace: they had heard my cries, and three of them broke away from the main body and started in our direction. I barely paused to think then, although I have thought since, over and over again, about the decision I made in that moment. I grabbed Mopsus by the wrist and dragged him after me, calling to Grendel to follow me close. We ran.
Behind us I heard my half-sister scream my name, and I think my heart broke in that moment. But I still ran.
We buried her shortly before the next day's dawn, Grendel and I, as the raiders lay in a drunken stupor up at the villa, having found and plundered the Master’s wine store. Mopsus watched beside us, crying silently, trembling like an aspen leaf. Poor scrap, he was terrified, but nothing would keep him from seeing his lady one last time. They had stripped her of everything of value before they stripped her of her life, but one thing they left: close beside her in the bloody grass lay a little stone figurine, one of the Lares, the household gods of the villa. From her earliest childhood he had been her talisman: she had named him Fidelis, Faithful One, and kept him with her always. His name and his sightless eyes reproached me as we filled in the shallow grave, so I set him above her head as a grave-mark, then we left her to lie forever in the place she had loved so well.
The first larks of the morning were rising as we crept away in the growing light. We had lingered far longer than was safe, but it was hard to leave her alone there in the cold ground. But leave her we did, as we had left her to die, and the larks sang sweetly over her head.
The Saxon raiders stayed two days, and after they had wrecked the villa they sacked the native settlement in the valley bottom. The villagers had all run off by that time, and the raiders took everything of value that had been left behind. What they could not carry away, they tore down in a frenzy of wanton destruction: the standing crops, the roundhouses, even the cow byre and pig sties and sheep fold - everything was laid waste.
We three kept in hiding, down by the river in the rough shack where Grendel's mother lived. We were safe enough there. Hidden in the reeds and the willows, it was too poor and wretched a place to be worth sacking, even if the raiders could have found it. Still, we dared not light a fire, and our only food was a few small raw fish from the river, and the remains of the Master’s last charitable dole to Grendel's mother, a stale loaf and a handful of wizened apples.
On the third dawn after the raiders came, I woke abruptly to the smell of smoke and the sight of flames leaping from the villa up on the ridge. Mopsus and the old woman were still sleeping fitfully beside me in a heap of rags and reeds. There was no sign of Grendel.
I watched the distant raging of the fire, and as the blazing roofs caved in and the walls crumbled, I finally understood that my life had changed forever. No longer was I a privileged slave of a fine house, bastard son of the Master, reared well and kindly to a good craft. In seventeen years, when I reached thirty, I could have expected to receive my freedom and a home of my own on the vast Corvo estates: I would have been Libertus Obustus Corvo, with a good living and the protection of my noble family. My father and my half-sister had promised me that, and I in turn had promised the same one day to Mopsus, though he was no kin of mine. Now Alauda was dead, the villa was razed to the ground, and I guessed that the Master would never return. I did think fleetingly of going to look for him: but to travel fifteen miles, alone and on foot, through lands laid waste by barbarians? I had not the courage, and even if I somehow managed to survive such a perilous journey, who was to say I would not find the garrison town sacked as well?
So instead I took the gift of my freedom, seventeen years early, and a bitter gift it was. When the barbarians moved on, I would make my way to what was left of the native village, and offer my youth and strength and skills to those who had survived the raid. I knew they would welcome me. They would take every able-bodied man and boy they could find to help rebuild their shattered homes and lives, even a half-Roman like me, son of a native slave and a foreign lord who had been little loved by the village people. I would make a place there for myself, and for Mopsus too, and even for Grendel if they would have him, and if he would consent to come - but life would never again be sweet. For me the dawn would always break with the smell of smoke and the flash of bright swords, and the voice of my dear half-sister calling my name in vain.
My name … the name my slave mother Hobbe gave me. She had died birthing me, and the Master, stricken with grief, had followed her wishes in calling me *Obustus.* People said she had the Sight, my mother, and now I knew what she had seen when she chose my name. I used to think it was just a masculine, Roman version of her own name, but now I knew better. Obustus means ‘hardened by fire,’ and so I was that day, as I watched my old life collapse into the flames.
Grendel came then, out of the mist, slipping through the reeds, silent in spite of his great bulk. There was blood around his mouth from the ragged piece of meat that he was gnawing as he came. He hunkered down beside me and offered me a share, and I was so hungry I would have eaten it, raw and bloody as it was. But when I reached out to take it, I saw that it was a human arm.
Whose arm was it? Had Grendel scavenged it from the dead body of one of my fellow slaves, murdered by the raiders? I don’t know. I never saw any of them again. Or maybe he had killed one of the raiders as they fled from the burning villa? I suppose if I had looked closely at his grisly trophy, I might have been able to tell. I didn’t: one glimpse was more than enough for me, and in any case, if truth be told, I didn’t want to know.
That summer was a bitter one, endlessly cold and wet. Mopsus and I were accepted in the native village, but Grendel stayed in the reed shack by the river, and I rarely saw him. The villagers feared him for his strangeness and his huge strength, and he shunned them.
We planted a few crops with what seed we could find, but they mostly rotted in the wet fields, and no help came from the Master. He never returned to the ruins of the villa. I never saw him again, and as the winter set in, the cold and the hunger and the grief took from me the very last of my old life, when little Mopsus died in my arms.
I was accepted in the village, but I knew I would always be something of an outsider, for I had no kin there: my mother’s people had been of a different tribe from far away.
After the luxury of the Villa Corvo, I found life very hard that first winter. Even when spring came at last and the frost released the land from its bitter grip, it was still cruelly cold. We would all huddle together for warmth at night in the Great Roundhouse at the centre of the settlement, even though the damaged thatched roof constantly dripped, making the central hearth-fire spit and smoke, and turning the hard-packed earth floor to chilly mud. The settlement had been enclosed by a ditch and a thorny stockade, built to keep out wolves in the night. Against the human wolves it had been useless, but now we took pains to repair it, to keep safe what few livestock we had found wandering, and had rounded up after the raiders were gone – half a dozen pigs, three sheep, and a single milk cow.
That winter and on into the spring, the babies and the younger children and the old folk died, almost all of them. That was bad enough: but it was impossible to dig proper graves in the frost-hard earth of the nearby burial ground, and there was no fuel to spare for funeral pyres, so the frail dead lay shrouded in one of the smaller roundhouses, and at night the villagers swore their restless spirits prowled.
Something prowled by night, but I didn’t think it was ghosts. The ground was mostly too hard to take clear footprints, but they were sometimes there if you looked carefully: the prints of a huge man, with a strange deformity to his feet. Grendel had webs between each of his toes, and his prints were unmistakeable. Why he came by night I never knew: perhaps he craved human company, although by day he shunned the village. Sometimes I caught a distant glimpse of him when I was working in the fields or gathering firewood or checking the fish-traps set along the river banks, but he rarely let me approach him, and only when I was alone. It was never easy to talk with Grendel, for he had few words, although I think he understood more than he could speak.
Life was hard for everyone, but perhaps most of all for me, accustomed as I had been to a comfortable life in the villa on the ridge. When the cold kept me wakeful through the long winter nights, I used to dream of my old home, and imagine I was back in my cosy room in the villa – for I had been privileged, I had not slept with the others in the slave barracks, or with Mopsus beside the kitchen hearth. I had had my own little room in the main house, where warm air from the hypocaust circulated constantly under the floor, and heavy curtains of leather kept out drafts from window and door. My clothes had been plain, but good: fine linens in the summer, and leather boots and thick woollen tunics and leggings and a warm, heavy cloak in the winter. Now I learned to be glad of small mercies, and to be especially thankful that when the raiders came I had been up all night, so I had fled wearing all my warmest clothes. Six months on I was still wearing them, for I had nothing else, but even so I was better off than most of the villagers.
As spring came on at last, life got a little easier. There was even a certain amount of trade with neighbouring villages, through which we got news, and such necessities as seed corn. The news was all of barbarian invaders: with the Roman legions ten years gone, the countryside was alive with Saxon war-bands, most of them raiders out for plunder, but some were settlers, looking for land. The former, we were told, came and killed, and moved on. The latter came and killed, and stayed. We kept a constant watch, although we knew in our hearts there was little we could actually do against any serious incursion.
Our plough oxen had died during the winter, but early in March I went out to check some trap-lines, and found Alauda’s little horse, Nebula, straying on the high wolds. That was a good day – I came back triumphant with two hares, a brace of partridge, and a beast of burden. For a while Nebula objected strenuously to her new role, but her days of leisure as a lady’s pet were over now, and before too long she was trained to the plough. Strictly speaking Nebula was mine, but I rarely went near her. I could not bear to see her trotting up to greet me, dancing under the burden of my guilt and my memories. The toss of her bright head and her soft dark eyes would always remind me of happy days with my beloved half-sister, watching as she learned to ride like a Roman lady, tall and graceful in the saddle.
Summer came at last in a blaze of heat that revived our spirits and promised a good harvest and rich pasturing for our meagre livestock. Repairs to the village were completed: twelve smaller dwellings now circled the Great Roundhouse, all of them newly thatched and proof against whatever the next autumn and winter might choose to hurl at us. I was allotted a space in the Boys’ Hut, along with the dozen other young unmarried men and older boys of the village. Younger children and unmarried girls lived with their extended families in the smaller roundhouses, while the Great Roundhouse was left as a general meeting place, where the women gathered to do their spinning and weaving and to cook the main communal meal of the day.
As far as possible, Galla the village headman saw to it that our daily tasks were varied, so that days of back-breaking toil were interspersed with easier work, and few of us felt hard done by. However, there were always some who thought they were given more than their share of the harder labour, and chief amongst these was Bryn the swineherd, who seemed to feel he should be allowed to spend all his time wandering in the woods and keeping a lazy eye on the village’s herd of pigs as they foraged under the trees. Galla had other ideas: Bryn was a big, sturdy young man, with the strength of an ox and about as much wit, and Galla clearly felt that his bulging muscles could be better employed at ploughing the fields or breaking new ground for planting, while the smaller boys kept the pigs from straying. Bryn’s nightly complaints made life uncomfortable in the Boys’ Hut, for he always had a keen eye for any sign that others might be doing even a fraction less than he, and as a newcomer and a stranger, I was often the target of his bullying. Some of the other boys used to follow Bryn’s lead in picking on me, but most of them were friendly enough when they saw that I did my share, and that I bore the swineherd’s attacks without complaint.
I had no close friends amongst the boys and young men of the village, but I did make one friend, a girl of about my own age called Fledde. She was a tall, slender reed of a girl, fair as flax with sky-grey eyes, who had lost all her close kin in the Saxon raid and the bitter winter that followed. Something about her reminded me of my dead half-sister, although Alauda, like me, had been as dark as Fledde was fair.
Fledde’s special skills lay in healing and the brewing of salves and potions, and one day she approached me diffidently to ask me to go with her to the gardens of the villa, to see what useful plants might still grow there. Like all the villagers, she was wary of approaching the villa, even now when it lay in ruins: in the old days, no villager would have dared set foot on Corvo land unless actually summoned, and that fear had not lessened even now, when the family was gone and there was no one to question their right to approach. I gladly agreed to go with her, and we set off one fine May morning with willow baskets and a spade and shears, to see what we could find.
The formal gardens of the Villa Corvo were already beginning to grow rank with weeds, but we found plenty of useful herbs, both for healing and for cookery. As far as I could, I kept my eyes averted from the ruins of my old home, and my heart averted from memories of happier days. I wondered fleetingly whether the Lares and Penates, the little household gods of the place, still lingered there amongst the blackened stones, watching and waiting for the family to return. And did the Genius Loci, the Spirit of Place, still guard the ruined house and the wasted lands that he had caused to prosper so richly for so many years? What do the small gods do, and where do they go, when their occupations are gone? I could tell that Fledde felt something of my melancholy mood, for she spoke gently to me, until I felt ashamed, knowing that the Saxon raid had deprived her, too, of all she had once held dear. Now she was without kin, and I knew that when she came to marry, she would have no one to speak for her and choose for her. Already Bryn the bully had his eye on her, which meant that no one else was likely to come forward. What she thought of Bryn I could not tell, for she was such a quiet shadow of a girl, who always seemed half-afraid of everyone.
As we were leaving the villa gardens I tripped on a loose paving stone and dropped my basket of plants and herbs. I knelt to gather them up, but Fledde, walking just ahead of me, did not notice, and carried on alone down the path to the village. As she reached the spot where my sister had died, I heard a hoarse cry from a small coppice a little way down the slope. Then Grendel came plunging out of the trees towards Fledde, stumbling in his haste to reach her. I knew in an instant why he ran towards her: her likeness to Alauda was even more pronounced than usual, since her shining hair was covered by a dark hood. Yards from her, Grendel staggered to a halt and stared at her. Then he fell to his knees and threw back his great shaggy head in a wordless howl of misery. Fledde stood gazing in shocked bewilderment. I went to Grendel, but as soon as I reached out to touch him, he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled away from us, head bowed in misery. Helpless, I watched him go: I had no comfort for him.
Fledde watched him too, until he disappeared once more into the trees.
‘Poor creature,’ she said softly. ‘Who did he think I was?’
‘My half-sister, the Lady Alauda,’ I said. ‘We saw her murdered, almost on this very spot.’
‘Poor creature,’ said Fledde, and I could not tell if she meant my sister or Grendel. ‘He wouldn’t have hurt me, would he?’ I shook my head wordlessly. ‘He must have loved her very much. I remember her. She was a good lady.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The very best.’
Without another word we walked on down to the village, and once I saw Fledde look back towards the trees with such gentle sadness in her eyes that I think I fell in love with her that moment.
Six months later she was married off to Bryn the swineherd, who neither loved her nor deserved her, and I was once again bereft.
A.D. 423: Two years later
*’Run! Run! Run for your lives!’*
That is really not something you want to hear when you are lying in bed with a broken leg splinted from ankle to groin. Three weeks before, I had fallen off the roof of the Great Roundhouse while helping to renew some damaged thatch, and I had been laid up helpless ever since. Now I struggled to sit upright, grimacing at the pain, and made a feeble attempt to crawl towards the doorway of the boys’ hut. I fell back almost immediately. I was not going anywhere.
*’Saxons! Saxons are coming! Run for your lives!’*
Outside I could hear all the sounds of hasty departure: men yelling orders, women screaming for their children, children shrieking, dogs barking hysterically, hens squawking, geese honking, terrified sheep bleating. One thing I couldn’t hear, though, was any sound of the Saxons. It was nearly three years since the dawn raid in which my half-sister had perished, when the barbarians came down from the hills in a howling mob. There was none of that now. The Saxons might indeed be coming, but they were certainly doing it very quietly.
The village swiftly emptied. In their haste to escape, no one thought to help me, and within a couple of minutes there were no more people noises, just the occasional nervous yelp of a stray dog.
Then I heard them: footsteps, voices … but the footsteps were unhurried and the voices were not raised, and they didn’t belong only to men. I could hear women and children too. I began to wonder if perhaps I was not going to die, and made another attempt to crawl towards the hut doorway. My ears rang and my eyes clouded with the pain of it, but this time I got there. I lifted a corner of the rough fabric that hung over the entrance, and peeped out.
Whoever had raised the alarm was right: these were certainly Saxons. My field of vision was limited, but I could see two men, immensely tall and thickset, with long blond hair and untrimmed beards, and a woman, tall as the men and even broader, flanked by two boys no more than eight or nine years old. To me they all looked dirty and unkempt, and they moved warily, staring about them, pointing at things and talking in a harsh, guttural language that I could not understand.
The situation was still alarming, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. These people hadn’t come to plunder and burn. At least, not yet.
Another man, much more finely dressed than the others, appeared suddenly from around the side of the Great Roundhouse, and gestured at its doorway. The woman lifted the door curtain, and cautiously peered in. A small dog ran out yapping, and the woman leapt back with a startled shriek. The men all laughed, and she looked abashed. The finely-dressed man ducked in, and the woman followed him. The two other men took up places either side of the entrance, like guards, while the little boys began to wander in my direction. I ducked back, but not quickly enough. One of them gave a shout, and I knew he had seen me.
I heard the sound of running feet, and dragged myself away from the entrance - just as well, for the curtain was pulled roughly back and a spear thrust in. If I hadn’t moved it might have spitted me; instead it halted inches from my chest. I raised my hands in a somewhat redundant gesture of surrender, and looked up fearfully into the face of the spear-carrier, who laughed and shouted something over his shoulder. Obviously he did not consider me a threat, for he allowed the two little boys to squeeze past him into the hut, where they stood looking solemnly down at me.
The elder boy gestured at my splinted leg, and asked a question, and I replied with a shrug and a grimace. The smaller boy stretched out his right arm, and rubbed it as if it hurt, then he copied my grimace, from which I deduced that he had once broken his arm, and was sympathising with me. This was promising: I appeared to have the good will of at least one of the Saxons, albeit the smallest and most insignificant. The older boy rolled his eyes at the younger one: his expression clearly said *What a fuss about nothing.* The younger boy kicked him sharply on the shin, and within moments they were grappling on the floor, yelling, rolling about and punching each other. I hastily drew my leg back out of harm’s way. Seconds later, the finely-dressed man burst through the doorway, cast a grim look at the two wrestling children, then reached down and seized them by the scruff of their necks. He hauled them upright as easily as a man picking up a couple of puppies, and shook them vigorously. A single, sharp word, and they stopped wriggling in his grip. He let them go, and they stood silent, eyes downcast, meek as milk. The man looked at me and raised his eyes to heaven like a man driven to exasperation by his unruly offspring. I took the risk of giving him a sympathetic grin.
Abruptly he turned away, and gestured everyone out of the hut. Outside I heard him give a brief string of words that sounded like an order, and then I heard a strange, rumbling noise like – cartwheels? Wincing with pain, I dragged myself back to the doorway, and looked out.
Two massive, lumbering carts came into view, both piled high with an odd assortment of goods – what looked like tents, blankets, bundles of household items, and, on top of the first cart, three magnificent bronze bowls and a clutch of spears. The carts, each drawn by two weary-looking ponies, rumbled through the village and on up the grassy slope towards a flat open field, currently lying fallow. The Saxons followed, some forty of them in all, mostly men, but there were at least five women and half a dozen children among them, including the two boys I had already encountered. At a shout from the finely-dressed man, whom I took to be the headman, the carts halted, and the women began to unload their contents.
It looked as if the Saxons planned to stay a while. I watched as they began to raise their tents of tanned leather, and two men started to dig what I guessed was to be a fire-pit for cooking. The women unloaded a big bundle of blankets, and shook them out. Even from several hundred yards away, I could see their expressions of disgust. A fine rain had been falling on and off all morning, and the blankets were damp. One of the women, the massive one with the two small boys, gestured to a group of men who were standing about doing nothing, and pointed towards the village. Four of them set off purposefully back down the slope.
I watched them as they went from roundhouse to roundhouse, emerging from each with blankets and cloaks and other items of clothing left behind by the villagers in their haste to get away. I don’t know why they didn’t all simply move into the buildings: they were happy enough to take anything of value they could lay their hands on, but the idea of actually taking over our homes never seemed to occur to them.
Inevitably one of the men appeared at the entrance to the Boys’ Hut where I lay helpless, and started to gather up bedding. He looked down at me, and my guts turned to water. For a moment I thought he would knife me and take my blanket too, but instead he gave a small grin of sympathy, and turned away. In a moment I was alone again, breathing hard and wondering why I was still alive.
It was a kindly gesture, to leave me my blanket when he could have taken it and left me shivering - or dead. From that moment, Saxons to me were not necessarily the ruthless marauders who had murdered my sister. These Saxons at least were people just like us: they would help themselves to whatever of ours they fancied, but they were not above a gesture of kindness to a helpless invalid. So I was not entirely astonished when the same man returned at evening, bringing me a pot of water, a hunk of rather ancient bread and a small lump of cheese. I had had nothing since the morning meal, and I drank the water in one gulp and ate ravenously to the last crumb.
Another and even more welcome visitor arrived around midnight, an hour or so after moon-set. Unlike the Saxon, he came stealthily, and in fact I wasn’t even aware of his presence until a soft voice breathed in my ear. I stifled a yelp of alarm, and peered at the dark shadow looming over me. A shaft of moonlight fell on red hair, bright as blown embers: and then I knew him.
‘Ronan?’ I whispered. ‘Is that you?’
‘Yes, bad luck to me,’ came the soft response. ‘As soon as Galla realised you’d been left behind, he made us draw lots for who was to come back and see if you were still alive. I lost.’
I was not much inclined to sympathise. I had been forgotten and abandoned by the villagers, and felt no particular concern for any of them at that moment, not even Ronan, who in happier times was almost a friend. A couple of years older than me, a small, slender youth, quick as a squirrel, with blazing red hair, Ronan had never joined in Bryn’s bullying, and I suppose it says quite a lot about my life in the village that that made him one of my favourite people.
‘I’m still alive,’ I said. ‘So what now?’
‘I go and report back to Galla,’ said Ronan. ‘He wants to know what the Saxons are up to.’
‘I think they may be planning to stay put,’ I told him. ‘They’ve set up camp on the fallow field, and helped themselves to whatever they fancy from the village. No-one’s threatened me so far, but then I’m no threat to them. They’ve even fed me.’ Which is more than can be said for you, I thought: Ronan had come empty-handed. ‘It might even be safe for everyone to come back,’ I went on. ‘They don’t seem to be unfriendly. If they were just a band of marauders, I’d be dead and the whole place would be in flames by now.’
‘We’ll wait out the night at least,’ Ronan said, sounding not entirely convinced. ‘If we start creeping back in under cover of dark, there’s no saying what could happen.’
‘True,’ I said. ‘They’re bound to have set guards around their camp.’
‘They have – I saw them,’ Ronan said, and pushed himself to his feet. ‘All right then, I’ll be off. Maybe I’ll see you in the morning. Good luck.’
I thought of asking Ronan to take me with him, but I knew he wouldn’t. I would be too much of a liability. In the dark, on his own, he should get away easily enough to wherever Galla had the rest of the villagers in hiding. With me in tow, he stood a fair chance of being spitted on the spear of a Saxon watchman.
‘Good luck,’ I said, and he melted silently into the night. I lay alone in the dark, and wondered, in a helpless sort of way, what would happen in the morning if any of the villagers did decide to return to their homes. The Saxons might simply kill them all, so that they could take the whole place over; but I didn’t think they would. They obviously hadn’t even considered moving in to the dozen huts and roundhouses that made up our little settlement: clearly they preferred their tents on the hillside. They might even move on, but I doubted it. The fact that there were women and children in the group suggested that these were migrants, not a raiding band. They would settle, I was sure of it. And then what? Could we all live side-by-side? I wondered why they had chosen this place of all the places they must have passed through since landing on British shores. I had never seen the sea, but I knew that we were more than a hundred miles inland in every direction. Perhaps they had tried to settle elsewhere, and been moved on by larger, stronger groups. They certainly didn’t look a very warlike bunch, apart from the big man who was obviously their chief.
Some ten years before, the Roman legions had departed our shores, recalled to Rome to defend the Mother City, and ever since that time wave upon wave of Saxons had been moving steadily westward, slowly taking over the land for their own. Mostly they let the original inhabitants alone, provided they showed no opposition. Some Britons moved on further west themselves, but many stayed to live alongside the Saxon incomers, and I guessed this might happen here too. The Saxons would want some of our women, of course: they had too few with them to create a viable settlement. Would they simply kill the men, and take them? Yes, I thought, if they were opposed. I wondered if Galla too was thinking like this, and whether he would be able to control his people when the Saxons helped themselves to whatever they wanted. Certainly there was no hope of successful opposition: we had too few menfolk, and none of us were warriors.
We would have to put up with whatever the Saxons chose to do, for any man who stood up against them was as good as dead.
TO BE CONTINUED