Tag Archives: Helen Johnson

God’s Own Country

Toka, Yorkshire, Spring 1069

My hair flies in the wind as I gallop over thyme-scented turf.  The pony is muscular between my legs, its coat hairy and hot.  The sea shimmers on the horizon, sparkling blue fading to misty distance.  My soul sings; I gallop for joy, for love of this land, that those who live here name ‘God’s own country’ – Yorkshire.

Thundering hooves race up behind me, then overtake.  Raven’s angry face turns on me.  “Toka, what are you doing?” he demands.

“It’s spring,”  I sweep my arm at hedges foaming with blossom; lambs leaping over molehills; puffs of white cloud floating in a deep blue sky.  “Do you not feel it?”

His knitted brows relax a little.  “Yes, I feel it,” he admits.  “But have a care.  Your father lost his life when his horse stumbled.”

I see the fear in his eyes and am shamed.  From the moment Raven came to serve my Father as huscarl – hearth troops – I have loved him.  I love him for his sturdy stance.  I love him for his thoughtful silence before he answers questions.  I love his long fingers, tanned but with pink nails, that gently fondle his dog’s ears.  Now I know Raven loves me too, and we are betrothed.

But his fear returns the shadow to my heart.  He speaks true.  Father spent his life locked in deadly feud with the Earls of Bamburg.  But last winter he died, not by act of Man, but of God.  His tripping horse broke a leg; father broke his neck.

We buried Father, son of Thurbrand the great Hold of Holderness, beside my Mother.  Now Father’s lands are divided among me and my brothers.  My eldest brother, Karli, sits in Father’s Hall at Hunmanby.  I and my four other brothers all have lands.  I have twelve estates.  It is a good endowment, worthy of a descendant of the Hold.

But with our legacy comes Feud.  My brothers carry the weight of vigilance, ever watchful for a murderer.

We ride homewards to Karli’s hall, where I stay until I marry.  Small children hail us, waving, as we pass well-tended fields, ploughed and sowed and speckled with tender new shoots of wheat and barley.  The children shout and run and chase away the pigeons that would eat the crops.

We stop to drink at a spring.  Sparkling water plashes into a stony channel.  I drink deep, of water that tastes clean and green and fresh.  I pluck flowers from the hedge, place them by the spring in thanks.

We watch the horses drink.  “You will be safe when we marry,” says Raven.  “We will go and live on my lands in Lindsey, away across the Humber.”

His long, pink-tipped finger is soft as the breezes as he runs it down my cheek.  Gently, so gently, he touches my lips with his.  He tastes soft and sweet, hesitant.  I slip my hand behind his head and hold him close.

* * * * *

Karli gives a feast to celebrate the coming of summer.  Since last night, a team of boys have worked to turn a spit over the great central hearth, roasting a swine.  The fat drips into the fire and flares.  The boys challenge each other to turn the spit without tiring, jeering at the one who retires, rubbing his arm.  I fill jugs with armfuls of flowers from the hedges, and place them on the tables.  Edeva, Karli’s wife, laughs: “Men want jugs to hold ale, not flowers.”

Edeva speaks true, and when the villagers come to the feast, we refill the ale jugs over and over again.  The great hall, so quiet and empty without Father, comes alive with talk and laughter, bright with colourful clothes.

I, since Mother died, the Cupbearer in Hall, fill the great ceremonial drinking horn, the one edged with silver.  I present it to Karli, my brother.  Karli raises it.  The silver catches a shaft of shining through the smoke hole.  “Summer is come,” he cries, “Greet the days of thrice-milking!”  He drains the cup: everyone else cheers, the voices rolling around the Hall, filling it with life once more. 

The boys carve up the swine, passing the meat round on great wooden platters.  The Hall is quieter as folk eat. 

Gradually, as each belly is sated, the buzz of chatter grows louder.   Men pull dice from pockets.  Small boys melt into the corner and begin to wrestle.  Women gossip.  Dogs slink under the tables to gnaw bones.  Someone starts a song.  Raven’s fingers catch mine.  His touch is magical, setting my skin tingling.

Raven speaks.  “I hear William has come, and sets him men to build another castle in York.”

Karli leans forward.  He has the look of Father, tall with a great mane of thick fair hair, turning silver at the temples.  Like Father too, his heavy brows become each day more knitted, more furrowed.  “We go not to York.”

“Why not?” asks Raven.  “It is the greatest city in the Northern Lands.”

Karli’s brows knot deeper.  “The Bamburg kin frequent York.  We of the Hold mingle not with those of Bamberg.”

Raven’s brows are fine, dark, and mobile.  Now he raises them.  “But there are thousands of people in York.  In that crowd, the Bamburg kin would not find you.”

Karli shakes his head.  “Not so.  They have spies, watchers.  The Earls pursue us through the generations, ever since King Cnut ordered Grandfather to remove their rebellious Earl Uhtred.  Uhtred’s son killed Grandfather, despite that Grandfather was acting for the King.  Thus our father was obliged to take vengeance – and now the feud falls upon me and my kin.  We must be ever watchful.”

I hear Karli, but he cannot suppress my joy.  Father did not die by feud, and I have never seen a single one of the Bamburg kin.  Soon, I will marry Raven.  I look at him and smile.  “When we are married, please take me to see this great city.”

Karli’s little girl, Ingunn, climbs into my lap.  I sing her a child’s song, of a wandering poet who seeks a warm bed. “He finds his bed…” I tickle her armpit, “Here!”  Ingunn, two summers old, squeals and giggles.  Her mother glares, “Ingunn must learn to sit quiet, don’t excite her.”

Chastened, I nuzzle Ingunn’s silken hair under my chin, and whisper a challenge, “How long can we stay quiet?”

She turns big blue eyes to me, nods, and puts a thumb in her mouth.  I wrap my arms about her, soft and warm, and dream of my child – Raven’s child – to come.

She starts and almost tumbles off my lap at sudden harsh yells, clash of metal, and a great thud as armed men burst into the Hall. 

Karli leaps to his feet.

* * * * *

Osbert, Yorkshire, May 1069

The sound of scabbards slapping against our thighs echoes in the sudden silence as I follow Gilbert, my Liege Lord, into the Hall.  Red faced peasants gape as our men spread around the room, unsheathed swords glinting in the firelight.

A man at the top table, with the womanly long hair of these men of York, leaps to his feet.  “Who are you, to bring weapons into my Hall?”  He speaks grandly, but we answer by throwing his guards, bound and bleeding, at his feet.

The Hall is more fitted to a count than a common farmer.  The air is thick with food, the smells meat, of bread, and ale.  My stomach growls and clenches: we have been in the saddle for many hours.  But in this hall, over-fed English peasants idle, a gallery leads to private rooms upstairs, the walls are lined with thickly embroidered hangings.  There are even flowers on the tables, as if at a King’s banquet.

My Lord Gilbert eyes the long-haired man.  “I am Commander of the Garrison of York, for King William,” he announces.  “I am come to collect the tax of Karli, son of Karli.”

The long-haired man speaks, “I am Karli, son of Karli.  And I have paid my lawful tax.”

A young woman sits beside Karli, a child on her lap.  But the child is not hers: he breasts are full but tight, virginal.  Her skin is fresh with youth, her hair long and fair like Karli’s.  I guess she is the sister.  Blood rushes to my balls: she is ripe.

Karli continues, “But I pay no tribute.  Tribute is paid by the men of Wessex, that the Danes may leave them in peace.  Here in York, the Danes do not threaten us: they are our kin.  We pay no tribute.  We never have.”

We have heard this tale many times.  These men of York seem to believe they themselves choose what laws to follow.  “Danelaw, Danelaw,” they bleat.  “Given to us by King Cnut, renewed by King Edward.”

My attention wanders.  On a hanging behind Karli, an embroidered warrior plunges his sword into a great dark dragon.  The dragon sits upon a pile of yellow gold.  It is apt: we warriors are about to claim our rewards.

I, like many of us, live by my sword because I am a younger son.  As it is not the custom to divide inheritances, my father can offer me little.  Hence, my sword serves he who pays.  Duke William – now King William – promised rich rewards to those who followed him to England.  I am here for my share.

The child on the girl’s lap whimpers, and she passes it to another woman.  I finger my sword: the smells of meat and bread are making me hungry.

But I must bide my time, for from King William also flow heavenly rewards.  The Pope has blessed his mission, and the King is to rectify the lax English Church.  We are to teach Englishmen obedience to God’s laws – and to His authority on earth, the King.

We began by righting the injustice done to William.  He was, by blood and promise, heir to England.  But the faithless English passed the crown to a commoner, Harold Godwinson.  When William demanded his throne, Harold refused, saying the King could do nothing without the consent of the Witan– his counsel of wise men.  A feeble excuse: it is for a king to rule, not to seek consent.

That is why William was forced to raise an army, and how I, Osbert fitzOderic, came to be in this Hall on the Yorkshire Wolds, following Gilbert, who in turn follows his kinsman King William, who in turn follows God.

A drooling dog circles the roast pork.  I kick it.  It yelps and runs under the table.

Karli finishes speaking.

Gilbert sighs.  It has been a long day.  We are far from home.  But, we have our work to do.  Gilbert draws a weary breath and explains to Karli, “It is not for you to choose what laws you follow.  There is one law.  The king commands: you obey.  You have not paid what the King commands.  Therefore, your estate is forfeit.”

I exchange glances with my men.  We stand prepared, practiced, our weapons at the ready.  It is almost three years now since God made manifest His will.  Three years since Harold died at Hastings.  Three years since William was anointed King, by the laws of God and Man.

But still the English do not accept it.  For three years, we have marched across this Godless country, suppressing rebellion to the south, the west, the east, and now to the north.

The remains of the fire that roasted the meat heat the metal of my chainmail, threatening to roast me.  Sweat trickles down my back.

“Your estate,” clarifies Gilbert, “Is now mine.”  The finger that had rested peaceably on his pommel flickers.  It is the signal we have been waiting for.

We draw our swords and spread around the room.  The peasants draw together, shivering, their eyes locked onto our swords.  Swords rise: peasants shrink.  Some cross themselves.

The swords swipe and cleave roast pork.  Our men take bread from the tables.  Thus we demonstrate who is now master.  I keep my eyes on the peasants as I stuff meat into my mouth.

While the peasants stare at our feeding men, Gilbert says, “I have a proposal of advantage to you.”

Karli lifts an eyebrow.

“My man, Osbert, will marry your sister.”

The girl starts, turns to her brother.

Karli, foolish, asks, “Who is this Osbert?”

Gilbert beckons.  I stand beside him, throwing my hip to show the large amber jewel on the pommel of my sword.  It is valuable, a reward given to me by the King himself.  The girl is lucky to be marrying such a successful man. 

“Osbert fitzOderic, commander of knights,” Gilbert introduces me.

The marriage is the King’s will.  He wishes us to marry Englishwomen, that the two races under his jurisdiction be united.  Furthermore, many Englishwomen claim to own land.  As God does not countenance women to own property, they must be married, that their husbands may hold the land.

Gilbert selected this girl, an orphaned virgin, to be married.  It is alleged she owns twelve estates.

The girl shakes her head.  “I am betrothed.”

Gilbert speaks.  “Nevertheless, it will be so.”  He glances around at our men: they have finished eating.  He flickers his finger again.

The scent of lavender rises from strewing herbs as I and my band shepherd Karli and his family out.  As planned, Richard, our other knight commander remains in the hall with his band.  Their job is to control the peasants: land is worthless if there is no-one to work it.

Outside, the bright sun dazzles.  We surround the family, swords drawn.  Karli glares at Gilbert.  “This is illegal.  I shall seek justice.”  His hand goes for his sword – but we have taken that.  The woman now holding the child puts a hand on his arm.

Gilbert says quietly to me, “Get the girl.”

I take her arm.  It is firm, sleek.  She shakes me off.  My man Roderick is prepared – he binds her wrists.  I toss her over my shoulder.

She writhes like a fish out of water.  She kicks, screams, bites.  Scarlet drops of blood drip from her knuckles as she pummels my mail-coated shoulder.  She makes no impression.  Battle has hardened my body.

Her reluctance is of no account.  Queen Matilda herself rejected the King’s first suit.  Now she is an excellent wife.  This girl will be the same.

Her brother and his huscarl try to retrieve her.  My men’s swords point at their chests.  The huscarl is stupid: he fights.  Roderick swings his sword.  The huscarl crumples.

I take the girl to my new estate.

When we arrive, the reeve, the girl’s servant, thinks to free her.  The touch of my sword teaches him his new master.

My priest says the marriage rites.  Roderick witnesses.  I consummate the marriage.  All is legal.

* * * * *

The girl is stubborn.  I beat her, but still she fights.  She attempts to run away.  The peasants aid her.  I am forced to punish the peasants and lock up the girl.

But the land is good.  The wheat is tall, cattle fat, sheep thick with wool.  Well kept houses cluster round the Hall.  There is a wharf for shipping goods to market.  Gilbert has chosen well for me.

All I need now is an heir.

Toka

He’s here again.  I fight.  I claw his eyes.  I kick, writhe, scream.

I cannot use the word man for this thief, liar, bully.  The thug who carried me away to slavery.

He is scrawny with a moustache like a weasel and neck shaven like a thrall, but his weight crushes me.  Vomit rises up my gullet.  His hot breath suffocates.  Yellow nails like claws grip my thighs.  I twist and turn, trying to escape.  My body clamps tight to bar his way.  But he forces his way in.  I, like my lands, am invaded.

Nobody comes to see why I scream.  He leaves, locks the door.  I have no water to wash away the scraps of his flesh caught under my fingernails.

* * * * *

At last, my brothers come, with Raven and Danish soldiers.  They kill Osbert.

Raven says, “All men are united to free us from William – even the Bamburg kin have made peace with your brothers, to fight our common cause.”

Karli nods.  “Many families have been wronged.  All have sworn alliance to drive out these devils.”

Raven gives me bread.  “You are thin, Toka.”  Food sticks in my throat.

His eyes cloud with the same fear as when I galloped my pony.  “Please, eat.”  He strokes my hand.  I flinch.

Raven withdraws, his gentle eyes pained.

I weep.

“Time, Toka,” he says.  “Take time to recover.”

***

I feel the stirring of Osbert’s spawn.

It consumes me from inside.  I cannot feel.  I cannot speak.  I cannot eat.  I cannot sleep.

I am a dead soul, my body stolen.

I walk by the sea.  I like the sea.  It is empty.  Empty of pain.  Empty of men.

I am defiled.  Defiled by Osbert’s invasions.  Defiled by his progeny.

The sea is unsullied.

A wave runs over my feet.  Clean.  Refreshing.

I walk.  Cold sea flows between my legs, numbing the pain of Osbert’s attacks.

I walk.  Clean, cold sea rushes over my breast, sharpening my breath.

I walk.  The sea washes me, sweeps away the stink of Osbert.

I walk.  I open my mouth.  Come, clean sea, purge devil’s child.

I walk.  The sea rushes into my nose, eyes, face, over my head.  I welcome it, each wave erases pain, washes away evil.

I walk.

______________________________________________________________________________

Helen Johnson has roved around Yorkshire, England for twenty years, writing about the history, heritage, landscape and people of a region known as God’s own Country. She was inspired to write about the Norman Conquest of Yorkshire after learning how devastating it was for the area. You can discover more of Helen’s writings at her website, https://www.helenjohnsonyorkshirewriter.co.uk/

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