Wilburgfos, England, April 1086
“If you had a beard, I’d shear it off now!” Brandolf threw himself forward. His sword crashed into the round shield that Roger had lifted over his shoulder just in time. The young Anglo-Norman groaned under the force of the blow. His arm yielded slightly – like a bow that is drawn, ready to fire off its deadly charge with full force.
“At least you’d find my beard,” Roger replied. “Yours can’t even be seen, you milksop.” With the shield, he pushed the Dane‘s sword away from him. Got you now! He took a quick step to the side and hit Brandolf in the flank. The Dane screamed and crouched in pain. Spurred on by the roar of his opponent, Roger decided to put a quick end to the fight. Before Brandolf had regained his composure, Roger jumped behind him and drilled the blunt tip of his sword into his opponent’s back.
“Do you see the gates of Valhöll, Viking? In you go!” He raised his knee and gave Brandolf a hefty kick in the backside. A wave of laughter swept over the bystanders, as Brandolf rumbled to the ground. A surge of Old-Norse curses followed his landing. Roger held his shield and sword into the air to celebrate his victory.
“That’s how the Viking army must have sounded up here twenty years ago in the fight against the Anglo-Saxons.” Joscelin shook his short dark curls.
“And in the end, it’s us, the Normans, who win – then as now.” Drogo plumped himself down on a big rock. With the grin on his wide mouth, he looked like a frog sitting on a water lily leaf, contentedly looking at his pond.
“You forget that Roger’s mother is Anglo-Saxon, my dear Drogo.” As always, Joscelin insisted on getting the facts right.
Brandolf scrambled from the ground, threw the wooden sword and shield beside him and rubbed his side. “Damn lefty!”
“The Church may regard it as a curse, but it does have its advantages.” Roger grinned and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the crumpled sleeve of his stained linen shirt. “Besides, you should be well aware by now that Vikings always lose to Anglo-Saxons and Normans.” He leaned his training weapons against the large stone on which Drogo sat.
“No way!” called Brandolf’s little brother Bjarni with the sense of justice of an eight-year-old. “You’re lying!” He pursed his lips and stabbed the bark of the next best tree with one of the two small knives that he always carried on his belt.
Brandolf strolled towards his coeval opponent and wiped the dirt off his crooked nose, which had survived worse than an impact on damp forest ground. “You’re as disgustingly proud as your father.”
“I’m nothing like my father,” grunted Roger, dropping into the grass and putting his arms around his legs. That’s William’s privilege. “I fight better, too.”
Brandolf reached for the waterskin Drogo gave him and looked down on Roger. He took a heavy sip, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and, grinning, presented Roger with the waterskin. “At least you got the better haircut.”
Roger stifled his own grin and took the leather sack. With his long hair he did rather resemble the two Danes Brandolf and Bjarni. At least in this respect Roger’s mother had prevailed against his father. The latter would have preferred the hair of his second-eldest son to be as short as Joscelin‘s, Drogo‘s and Richard‘s, who all wore the short bowl haircut of the Normans.
“Women may like your hair,” said Joscelin. “But Brandolf is right. You’re arrogant and choleric.”
“I’m not arrogant,” Roger replied. Why was everyone criticizing him? Was he not the winner of the fight? Did not Brandolf make a belly landing in the sand because he fought worse than Roger? Should they not be mocking Brandolf rather than him? “I just do a lot of things better than you and you know it.”
Brandolf and Drogo burst into laughter.
“What are you laughing at?” Roger waved dismissively and looked grumpily at Joscelin. “You’re just jealous!”
The serenity in Joscelin’s hazel eyes soothed him. Joscelin was the incarnation of reason. Even in danger, he never lost the composure and dignity that his Roman general’s nose suggested.
How much Roger wished he had this ability, at least every now and again! No wonder the sword master had not chosen him, but Joscelin, to take responsibility for the small group.
“Like I said, arrogant and choleric.” Joscelin smiled.
Roger growled and lowered his gaze. Of course, Joscelin was right. And Roger had once again fallen into the trap. When he felt attacked, he stormed off like a wounded boar. The fact that Joscelin remained so calm didn’t bother him, and he wasn’t angry with him either. It was different with his father, whose calm had something condescending about it and only made Roger more furious. The fact alone that his father was the liege lord kept forcing Roger to retreat grudgingly before anything worse would happen. But the anger in his stomach lingered. Every single time.
Richard de Percy’s bright child’s voice rose out of nowhere. “Roger may be daring at times, but he’s polite, educated and always ready to do his best.” He took the shield and sword. “I’d be glad if I could fight like you, Roger.”
Roger smiled mischievously at the little redhead. He liked Richard, not only because he was an Anglo-Norman, too, but above all because, since their first meeting here in Wilburgfos, he had been giving him the respect that Sire Geoffrey gave only to his eldest son William. As the youngest of the group, Richard had no reason to hide behind anyone in the battle arena. At less than thirteen years of age, he already surpassed many of the sword master’s older students in discipline and conscientiousness. This also included Roger, for whom discipline was like building a raft: After much effort and hours of work, you reached the other bank of a river dry-footed, but swimming would have got you there much faster.
A voice with a strong Norman accent made the young men look up. “I do not think your father would like to hear that, mon cher Richard.”
Two riders approached on the path that led from the Wilburgfos manor house through the small forest to the clearing. The bowl haircut and the clean-shaven face betrayed them as members of the aristocratic upper class of Norman-occupied England.
“What are they doing here?” Drogo sat up and stared at the two visitors.
Richard turned around without letting go of his equipment. Brandolf thoughtfully scratched his light beard and stepped a few steps aside to clear the battle arena. Joscelin walked a few steps towards the riders, stood with his legs apart and his hands on the hips. Roger saw no reason to get up. For the king or one of the high vassals he would have jumped up immediately and bowed. He did not owe any such homage to his elder brother William, who was approaching them with his friend Henri. However, Roger followed their every movement attentively, because with William, one had to be prepared for everything.
The arrivals stopped next to Brandolf. William looked at Roger and then at Richard. “My half-brother is still a little … unrestrained when fighting. Too much feral blood.”
“What do you want, William?” Joscelin asked.
William glanced at his companion and pursed his lips. “Henri and I watched you for a while. We thought maybe we could learn something.” He pulled up a corner of his mouth and pointed his chin at Richard. “I see you are playing with sticks.”
The big blue eyes in Richard’s young face narrowed. “We are not playing. We are practising, William.”
William nodded. “I understand. You are practising with sticks.”
“You know we mustn’t use sharp weapons while practising out here,” Roger said.
“Ço est seure chose.” William’s light blue eyes were on his younger brother. “That is the way it should be when someone like you is around.”
Roger felt his pulse accelerate. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He rose and strolled across the clearing towards William, while trying to keep his breath calm.
“Well, mon cher Roger, I think we all know what I am talking about. Instead of smashing chairs or doors all the time, you should be working on your discipline.”
Roger stayed an arm’s length away from William and snorted. “You’d better take care of your own discipline.”
William pulled up an eyebrow. “Or else?” he asked slowly.
Roger was boiling. The mere tone of his brother’s words burned inside him like a hot poker on naked skin. William and their father never missed an opportunity to make him aware of his inferiority in the eyes of the thoroughbred Normans. William was truly the son of his father.
William put his hand on the pommel and leaned forward. “Will you crush another bowl with your fist, mon cher? Like two days ago when father had to upbraid you for your behaviour?”
Roger sucked in the air and bit his lips.
William sat up straight again. “You should be a little more careful with your father’s property. After all, I would hate having to rebuild everything when I take over Wilburgfos.”
“Wilburgfos is not Sire Geoffrey’s property,” Richard said, lowering the wooden sword and shield as if not to support his opposition with an offensive gesture. “He received it as a fief from my father, but it does not belong to him.”
“Exactly,” Brandolf said. “Wilburgfos actually belonged to a Dane.” He looked at William from top to bottom. “Before you Normans killed him and divided the land amongst you.”
William laughed. “Hear, hear what our Danish friend has to say! Is this not a little unseemly for someone whose countrymen even today can do nothing but murder and pillage?”
Brandolf’s face reddened, so that the light-coloured hair and beard could be seen even more clearly. “And what did you Normans do less than twenty years ago? You burned and pillaged the whole North! Hundreds, thousands of people had to die so that you could sprawl out.” He gave William’s horse a push that it swayed to the side.
Before William could return the attack, Roger had grabbed Brandolf’s arm and pulled him out of Williams range.
“You’ve wiped out my entire village and most of my family!” Brandolf shouted.
“Go away, William! We don’t need you here.” Roger was glad Richard and Brandolf had distracted William. He probably would have done something stupid himself.
William looked at Brandolf disparagingly. “It was time that we Normans took possession of our land and taught you feral creatures some manners.”
“Our land?” Roger asked. That damn Norman pride! Like his father. “This land had been inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons for centuries.”
“Your Anglo-Saxons, mon cher, were unruly pirates who invaded and occupied this island.”
“Oh, really?” Roger’s Anglo-Saxon soul reached for the weapons. “A few generations ago, the ancestors of the Normans weren’t really squeamish either when they reached the northern shores of the Frankish kingdom.”
“Exactly!” grunted Brandolf. “You rassragr Normans are pirates yourselves!” The young Dane tried to extract himself from Roger’s arms which held him firmly. He was smaller than Roger, but the strength in his upper body left no doubt that the heavy two-handed battle axe was his preferred weapon. “You murdered the English king and then you invaded England with thousands of men.”
William laughed. “The king? You mean the usurper Harold?”
Brandolf and Richard looked at each other. “Harold Godwinson was elected King of England by the Witan,” Richard said.
William clicked his tongue. “King Edward promised the Duke of Normandy the crown as early as the year 1064 of our Lord. Harold swore on sacred relics to support William in asserting his claims. He is a traitor and a coward – like his Danish cousins.”
Brandolf threw himself back and forth to shake off Roger’s iron grip. “Get off your horse and we’ll see who’s a coward!”
William thought for a moment, then handed Henri the reins and swung himself out of the saddle. Even with the large-framed dapple-grey horse between the two, one could see that William was slimmer than Brandolf, but towered over him by a whole head. William adjusted his sword and took his kite shield.
Bewildered, Henri looked at his friend. “We do not have time for this, William. The others are waiting for us.”
William waved his remark aside. “I shall not be long, Henri. Why do you not ride ahead?”
Without waiting for Henri’s answer, he walked to the opposite side of the battle arena, turned around and drew his sword.
Roger loosened the grip on Brandolf and frowned. What was his brother up to? Did he want to challenge Brandolf to a fight? With real arms?
Drogo and Joscelin exchanged questioning glances.
“What are you doing, William?” Joscelin asked. “You know that your father has forbidden fighting with real arms out here. Do you want to disobey his orders?”
“Whosoever wants to prove that he is a man shall also fight like a man.” William looked at the reflection of the sun’s rays on the bright blade of the sword. “But maybe you are afraid of the Normans like your ridiculous King Svend Estridsen?”
Bjarni, who until now had stood behind a tree, hesitantly stuck his head out. “Come on, Brandolf! Show him!”
All eyes were on the snorting Dane, who shook off Roger’s hands and stomped off to take up arms.
“What are you doing, Brandolf?” Roger felt queasy as he was watching his friend. On the one hand, he could understand Brandolf’s behaviour. William let everyone around him hear and feel that he considered himself superior because of his Norman descent. His father put this attitude into practice every day and watched jealously that his eldest and dearest son perpetuated the Norman way of life and mentality.
On the other hand, Brandolf would have little chance of defeating William. He was one of the best swordsmen on the estate, agile and fast, and had almost three years more experience than Brandolf. Even with his dreaded battle axe, Brandolf would not be able to do much against him. A fight with real arms was also too dangerous. And what would William do with Brandolf when the fight was over?
Drogo shifted from one foot to another. “Oswulf will have us sweep the yard for a whole week if he finds out.”
Richard looked to Roger for help, but Roger was as baffled as the others.
Joscelin put his hand on Brandolf’s shoulder as the Dane reached for his axe. “Be reasonable, Brandolf.”
Brandolf threw his light blonde curls back and shook off Joscelin‘s hand. “Leave me alone!” He lifted up his battle axe and stood opposite William on the other side of the arena.
The two opponents looked at each other, prowling to the side and forward. William thrust at Brandolf with his sword, then lifted the shield and easily avoided the mighty blow of Brandolf’s battle axe.
It soon became clear that the fight against Roger had taken its toll on Brandolf. His movements became noticeably slower. William, on the other hand, moved smoothly around his opponent and his powerful weapon.
Roger repeatedly gazed at Bjarni, who was by turns cheering for Brandolf and biting his nails. As the fight continued, the boy became increasingly silent until he restrained himself to weasling around in front of a tree without uttering a single word. Unlike Roger, Bjarni loved his big brother more than anything else in the world. It must have been terrible for him to stand there helplessly while William, armed, was playing cat and mouse with Brandolf. Instead, Bjarni probably would have loved to intervene in the fight if he could.
“Argh!” Brandolf’s scream startled the spectators and the horses. On Brandolf’s left thigh, a red trace made its way through the light-coloured linen fabric down to his knee. Henri reined in the horses. The others looked horrified at the deep wound.
William stood with his back to Bjarni, less than four steps away. Out of the corner of his eye, Roger saw Bjarni pull out his knife and storm forward.
“Bjarni, no!” Roger shouted, ran off and grabbed the boy by the arm. The eight-year-old quickly swung the knife in his free hand over Roger’s right cheek. A sudden pain shot through Roger and cut off the scream in his throat. He closed his eyes and hissed like a snake in defensive posture. A warm liquid trickled down his face. His hand twitched involuntarily towards his cheek.
He had only loosened his grip for a moment, but Bjarni had already escaped. When Roger opened his eyes again, Brandolf was just preparing for another strike with his battle axe. William’s gaze only focused on Brandolf. Shortly before Joscelin got hold of Bjarni, the boy plunged his knife into William’s unprotected back. William howled and turned his shield a little too far to the right as the pain of the stab pulled his shoulder, chest and hip together.
“William!” Roger groaned and stared at his brother.
“Brandolf, no!” yelled Richard and Drogo.
“Par Deu,” Joscelin whispered as he clasped the wriggling Bjarni tightly and turned him to the side.
With blood seeping from his face, Roger took a final step towards the battle arena, where Brandolf’s axe was just going down on William, slicing through his left arm and half of his chest.
It seemed to Roger as if someone had stopped the time. Memories of William flashed through his head like lightning. In his ears, the sounds around him were brewing into an unbearable thunder: Brandolf’s moaning as the axe whizzed through the air; William’s cry and the crunch as the deadly weapon chopped his flesh and bones in two; the long, muffled, final impact, followed by a last shiver that released his brother’s body into eternal rest. And then silence. Nothing and nobody moved. No man, no animal, no blade of grass. No sound was heard. Even the chirping of the birds had stopped, as if they watched breathlessly in their hiding places what was going on down there in the clearing.
“Par la mort de Deu,” croaked Drogo.
“Roger? Roger!” Joscelin whispered, but Roger could not answer.
His body was paralyzed. Only his thoughts were circling in his head. He fell to his knees next to William. His cheek was burning. The blood shot out of the gaping wound in hot thrusts, made its way down to the chin and throat and finally spread over the light linen fabric of the tunic. Carelessly, Roger wiped his face with his sleeve while his gaze wandered aimlessly over his brother’s body. Eala, Willelm!
A red mass bulged out over the blade of the stuck axe and made William’s skin appear almost transparent. Roger put his hand on William’s chest, as if to check if his heart was still beating. What have you done? He’s dead. William of all people. Killed by someone who wouldn’t put up with your insults any longer. How many times have I wished you go to hell when you mocked me again. But to die in this way – did you deserve this?
Little Bjarni broke away from Joscelin. He looked disgustedly at the pool of blood that was spreading beside the lifeless body and scurried to his brother. “You won,” he said to Brandolf and looked up to him, but the silence of the others suffocated the smile on his face.
Brandolf, breathing heavily, gaped at his opponent, who even now regarded him in a challenging way. Not even death seemed to be able to wipe the mocking smile from William’s face.
“Par Deu!” The full horror of what he had just observed resonated in Henri’s words. He rode towards the brothers and brought the horses to a halt in front of William’s corpse.
Roger swallowed audibly as he pressed the folded fabric of the already deep red sleeve onto his right cheek. Brandolf’s outline blurred before his eyes. What have you done, wretch? You killed my brother. You killed a Norman. My friend – the murderer of the eldest son of the liege lord.
Hate, sorrow and anger raged in Roger’s chest, but also compassion. Compassion? For whom? His older brother William, who had to pay for the arrogance and contempt of others? Or his friend Brandolf, who had just killed a Norman and who, according to the law, would have to face a particularly cruel punishment.
While trying to reach a decision, he heard Henri’s voice.
“He is dead. You killed him.” It seemed as if Henri had to convince himself through words that his friend had overestimated himself this time.
Brandolf did not answer. He was still breathing heavily and kept staring at his beaten opponent.
“He insulted us!” Bjarni hissed and clasped his brother’s arm.
“Teis toi!” Henri looked down on the boy. “Without your cowardly attack from behind, your own brother would be lying there now.” He straightened up in the saddle, probably to appear bigger and more important in spite of his short, sturdy stature. “But you will receive your just punishment. I shall make sure of that.”
“Wait, Henri!” Roger muttered, dazed by the pain of his injury and the shock of the sudden end of his brother’s life. “Let me handle this.”
“I’ll help you, Roger.” Richard hurried to him to help him get up. “Someone has to take care of your wound.” He looked at Roger anxiously.
“We must first bring William home,” Roger groaned and stood up, staggering. With Richard’s help, he slowly walked towards Henri, carefully removed his right arm with the blood-soaked sleeve from the sticky wound and stretched out his smeared hand to the reins of the dappled horse. “Give me the horse. I’ll bring William back.”
Henri looked at Roger closely and then nodded. “A tun acort,” he growled and handed him the reins. He cast one last disparaging glance at Brandolf and trotted off towards Wilburgfos.
When Roger believed that Henri was out of earshot, he laboriously turned to Brandolf. “Ðu eart unwita! What were you thinking?”
The young Dane looked up for the first time and inflated his nostrils. “Your brother started it, didn’t he? What was I supposed to do?”
Roger examined his sleeve, then the tunic, and pulled a face. “You couldn’t wait to get your axe out,” he grumbled. “Practice weapons aren’t enough for you.” His heartbeat was racing.
Brandolf raised his voice. “Should I have fought your brother with that wooden stick or what?”
“Maybe,” Roger ground out. The idea of facing his father next time chased a tremor through his intestines. “Then he wouldn’t be lying there, slashed, in the grass and I wouldn’t have to tell my father that his beloved son is dead.”
“His beloved son!” Brandolf threw himself back so that his curls twirled in the air. “Ha! No one but your father will weep over him; you least of all.”
“Oh, is this so? And why?”
“Because you’re only second best as long as there’s William, that’s why. Your mother’s just an Anglo-Saxon.”
Roger felt his body stiffen. What the Normans thought of the Anglo-Saxons, he knew only too well. No Viking had to rub his nose in that, not even Brandolf. “At least she’s not a flotwif.”
“My mother’s not a pirate!” Brandolf yelled back.
“Stop it!” Joscelin pushed the two apart. “One dead man is enough.”
Drogo kicked against the few blades of grass still standing upright. “So what do we do now?”
Joscelin ran his hand through his hair and looked around. “In any case, we can’t just leave him here.”
Drogo waved his hands around. “And how are we meant to carry him away? He’s not … in one piece, … I mean …”
Joscelin patted him on the back. “Don’t worry, Drogo. We will handle this.” With a movement of his head, he pointed to a row of tall trees not far from the clearing. “We’ll get some strong branches and hazelnut rods over there and build a stretcher to take William home. Drogo and Brandolf, you come with me and help me. The rest of you prepare William for the way.” He took his sword and moved his head in the direction of William. “Don’t forget your axe, Brandolf! We’re going to need it.”
Brandolf stood beside William with his legs apart, grasped the handle of his battle axe and pulled with all his might. Some flies that had settled on the gaping wound buzzed up. After some jerking back and forth, Brandolf pulled the axe with a smack from the huge gap which was immediately replenished with bloody intestines. Bjarni clasped his hands over his mouth and barely reached the big rock before he vomited all over the place.
With his blood-stained axe, Brandolf followed the others wordlessly into the rows of trees where they searched for branches that were straight, thick and long enough to bear William’s weight on their way back to the manor. In the meantime, Roger and Richard took care of William.
The flies had greedily regained their places on William’s body and were humming away. Richard wrinkled his nose and looked as if he was going to provide for a second puddle behind the big rock. He handed Roger the light woollen cape he had been wearing this morning when they left for the clearing. “Here, take this. You can wrap it around him.”
Roger followed Richard’s gaze and looked down at himself. The linen shirt stuck to his upper body as if it were tied to it with a wide, deep red bandage whose colour could easily keep up with Richard’s redhead. Roger carefully slid his fingers up the deep red track. His neck was greasy and encrusted with sweat, dried and fresh blood. There was surely not much left to see of his light skin and his fine facial features, which his mother loved so much, at the moment. On his right cheek, Roger felt the finger-length gash that Bjarni’s cut had opened between the cheekbone and the jawbone, and from which a trickle continued to flow, constantly refreshing the red on Roger’s skin and shirt.
Richard shivered with disgust. “You look terrible.”
Roger took the cape. “Thank you.” He only became aware of the ambiguity of his answer when he saw Richard trying to stifle a grin.
“At least you’re still alive,” mumbled his young friend, looking down bashfully.
Roger put the reins in Richard’s hand. “I’m sure my father would prefer it the other way around.”
Richard startled. “You mustn’t say that!”
I know. It should be thought, not said. Even if it’s true. He looked at his friend in silence. In the background he heard the dull blows of Brandolf’s axe, felling trees for the stretcher.
Joscelin yelled, “Out of the way, Drogo!” before a trunk crashed into the bushes, next to which Drogo was cutting a few flexible rods.
Drogo’s loud cursing was followed by a brief order from Joscelin to start binding the tree trunks together. Roger’s gaze wandered into the distance, in the direction of the estate. How would they be received there?
Richard was the first to break the silence. “What will your father do?”
Roger remembered the cape in his hands and slowly folded it apart. “I don’t know.”
Richard had put William’s sword aside and stripped the shield from William’s left arm.
“Can you give me a hand, please, Richard?” Roger spread the cape above William and showed his friend what to do. As soon as they had lifted William onto the cape, Roger knotted the fabric around William’s upper body and arm with skillful fingers, so that it looked as if William had thrown a short coat over his left shoulder.
While Richard collected the practice weapons in two woollen sacks, Roger helped the other squires, as far as his strength would allow, to finish the stretcher. When Joscelin considered it adequate for its purpose, they pulled the stretcher next to William and the four of them carefully lifted him on top of it. Joscelin fastened it to William’s horse and placed the sword and shield on William’s legs. Brandolf took his blackened battle axe while Roger grabbed the horse’s reins to lead it home.
“What are you going to do now, Brandolf?” Joscelin asked.
Brandolf blew a strand from his face. “Why? What do you want me to do?”
Joscelin pulled up an eyebrow, but before he could say anything, Drogo pointed to his side, wildly waving his hands. “William is dead, fol! How will you explain this to Sire Geoffrey?”
Joscelin nodded briefly. “You know what the law says about killing a Norman, don’t you?”
Brandolf apologetically raised his hands, but his tone made it clear that he was not aware of any guilt. “It was an accident. I only defended myself.”
Roger sat down exhausted on the rock and puffed through. His right cheek was burning with pain and in his mind he still felt Bjarni’s knife gliding through the flesh. “My father won’t believe you.”
The young Dane moaned as if he had to explain something to Roger for the hundredth time because he still had not understood. “You were all there. You saw what happened.”
Roger, Joscelin and Richard looked at each other. Joscelin crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Yes, but the question remains how it could get to this point out here – after all, we are only allowed to fight with practice weapons outside the manor house.”
“If Oswulf finds out!” Drogo whimpered and looked at the manor.
“The sword master’s punishment will be an easy one against what Brandolf may expect from my father,” Roger remarked.
He had barely finished the sentence when Drogo became pale and pointed towards Wilburgfos with his eyes wide open. “There’s … there’s riders coming.”
“Riders?” Joscelin frowned. “How many?”
Roger rose sluggishly and tried to see who approached them.
“There are five riders. Normans,” Richard noted.
“Ic hine wergðo on mine sette!” growled Roger. “That must have been Henri.”
Joscelin frowned. “But you said you’d tell your father!”
“Fiz a putein!” Drogo’s gaze changed back and forth between the riders and Roger. “What are we going to do now?”
Roger’s heart pounded up to his throat. He had to do something. Surely his father had sent the riders to capture Brandolf before he had the idea to flee. But Roger’s thoughts were paralyzed by numbness and pain; he simply could not grasp a clear thought.
Meanwhile the riders were so close that Roger could recognize their faces – five Normans from his father’s closest circle of confidants, all loyal and eager to consolidate the Norman rule here in the North and to enforce it against any resistance, no matter how much blood would be shed.
He turned to Brandolf. His otherwise bold and daring brother-in-arms stood there petrified. The riders would soon reach the forest around the clearing. Bjarni anxiously clung to his big brother and buried his face between his arm and torso.
“They’ll be here in a moment.” Richard swallowed.
“Brandolf, you’ve got to go.” Roger could already hear the horses’ hoofbeats and, in spite of his own discomfort, he tried to keep William’s horse calm, which would have liked to gallop towards his fellow horses to greet them.
“Run, Brandolf!” Drogo squeezed closer to the stretcher.
Joscelin wiped his chin. “They’d catch him anyway. The forest is not dense enough, and they have fast horses.”
Brandolf did not move. He did not even seem to notice his little brother tugging at his sleeve and talking at him. Bjarni was still too young to understand why Brandolf should not fall into the hands of the Norman horsemen, but the restlessness of the elders passed on to him. Soon he was to find out the reason for this concern, because Sire Geoffrey’s court was known for a fast and brutal jurisdiction.
The leaves on the bushes rustled as the five horses galloped along the narrow path to the clearing before they came to a halt, snorting, around the youngsters. The leader of the riders, Hugues de Borre, drove his stallion towards the surrounded. As always, he looked like a bear that had been awakened too early from hibernation. His eyes were the shape and colour of unripe gooseberries. His lips resembled a shirt seam sewn by a seven-year-old girl at her very first attempt at handicrafts. His hair, puffed up by the fast ride like a crow in the winter, only vaguely resembled the usual Norman hairstyle. Roger could not stand Hugues because he supported all that Roger hated about his father.
Without a word of greeting, Hugues pointed to Brandolf and Bjarni. “Ces deux-là. Seisisets-les!”
Four spears and all eyes were on the brothers from all sides.
“Drop your axe, Dane!” Hugues ordered.
Brandolf hesitated for a moment, perhaps because it was only now that he realized that Hugues had spoken to him. He slowly put his weapon on the ground, as if he was still thinking about what Hugues was going to do to him.
Roger stepped out behind William’s dapple-grey horse and raised his hand. “Wait! I can explain.”
Hugues turned his head in his direction without looking at him specifically. He seemed much more anxious not to let the supposed culprits out of his sight. “You can do this when they are brought before the court,” he grumbled, waving to his men and steering his horse back to the path. “Aluns!”
Roger exchanged one last look with Brandolf before the guards pushed him forwards with their spearheads. Bjarni stumbled helplessly after them. The others watched silently as the prisoners were driven towards their fate.
“Are you sure you don’t want to ride back on the horse,” Richard asked with a worried look towards Roger’s cheek, which Joscelin had bandaged using a few plantain leaves and a strap of linen.
Roger shook his head as he led the dappled horse with the stretcher and Williams’ body out of the woods. “Don’t worry, Richard. I am not going to collapse.”
Richard nodded silently, but kept watching Roger. He probably wanted to make sure he would be there in time if Roger fell over on the way.
They followed the narrow path along the river Fors Bekkr, which meandered into Wilburgfos. The noise roared in Roger’s ears. He looked to the whitecaps dancing on the thundering waters. The snow had already melted a few weeks ago, but the river still lived up to its name – “watercourse with rapids”. It accompanied the funeral procession of the young men with its eerie hissing, splashing and gargling. Roger thought of his mother, who never tired of warning him of the torrential current of the river and forbidding him to bathe in it. That was why he had once secretly arranged to meet his friends at the banks of the river for a test of courage. He almost drowned. His friends had only just been able to fish him out. Back then, they had managed to save a life. It looked different today. And the worst was yet to come for them all.
Roger’s gaze followed the watercourse, which divided the flat green landscape like a dirty ribbon until it bent southwest and disappeared behind the heavy wooden palisade of the Wilburgfos estate. With his heart pounding, Roger looked at the roof of the great hall, which was lurking behind the fence for their arrival. In his head, he could hear the noises he was used to from there: the murmuring and smacking at the long tables in the hall itself, the hissing and clattering from the adjoining kitchen, the chattering of the maids on the way between the kitchen and the pantry, the soft sounds of his mother and the booming command tone of his father in the private rooms of his family on the upper floor of the building. All this would have ceased long before they had even set foot in the great hall.
Approximately a spear throw downstream from the manor house rose the sturdy wooden building of the Benedictine priory of Wilburgfos, whose church steeple towered far above the modest farmhouses. Roger swallowed. What would his half-sister Adelais say if he brought her the message? How would she cope with the loss of her Norman brother? Would she not hate monastic life and the involuntary separation from her family even more than she did anyway?
Some children craned their necks as the young men passed the dirty little huts of the settlement and finally entered the inner courtyard of Wilburgfos Manor through the large gate. Normally there was a lot of activity around this time – it was around noon; usually the work of the morning was finished and the preparations for the disner began. But today was no ordinary day. Roger felt as if he had put his head in a down pillow. The chapel stood lonely and abandoned next to the great hall. In the horse stables he heard no neighing and no talk about horses, equipment or war strategies. The door of the armoury, through which otherwise young boys pounded in and out, was closed and sulking. And the remaining huts huddled anxiously against the wooden fence. People with restless faces hurried away as Roger raised his head and looked at them. Others put their heads together, turned away with their hand over their eyes or made the sign of the cross with their heads hanging low. Every now and then hasty whispering reached Roger’s ear, but he could not make out what people were secretly telling each other. Accusing index fingers sometimes pointed in the direction of William, sometimes at Roger. Only Drogo could be heard, complaining loudly in the background about the obtrusive flies, which were probably humming around the horse and William’s body and coming too close to Drogo.
Joscelin had caught up with Roger and was watching the crowd from the corner of his eye. “I believe we have to thank Henri for this,” he whispered to Roger. “Everyone already knows what happened.”
Roger was just bringing the horse to a standstill in front of the great hall when his brother Tankred rushed out. He was barely a year younger than Richard, but what the latter lacked in Norman pride, Tankred possessed in abundance. But this was not the only thing he shared with William. With his light blue eyes and strawberry-blonde bowl haircut, he looked like a smaller version of his eldest brother.
“William? William!” Tankred threw himself partly onto, partly before the stretcher. Like a hungry wolf launching itself at its exhausted prey to tear it apart, he clawed his hands into the woollen cape and tugged at it as if to shake William back to life.
“What did those Viking pigs do to you? Why did they do that? William! Get up! You mustn’t die. You mustn’t leave me alone!” His outburst of rage dissolved into a violent sobbing.
Drogo comfortingly laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Calm down, Tankred.”
Tankred jumped up and slapped Drogo’s hand off his shoulder. “Don’t touch me!”
He stared at the others, puffing. “Why didn’t you help him?” he yelled. “Did you just stand there gawking like you do now? You are to blame for his death! Without you, he’d still be alive. It’s your fault!”